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Earning from the bureau

 The Big Issue Malawi 11 June 2019

(Originally published: 07/2009) Falling prices, driven by intense competition among telephone network service providers, has led to a rise in the so called telephone bureau operators on the streets of Malawi. But with bureaus now populating nearly every street corner and the cost of handsets now decreasing, it appears it may only be a matter of time before the once popular telephone bureaus lose their business. (487 words) - By Orchestra Kamanga

It is proliferation at its maximum. You will find them at every corner and along every busy road-connecting like elements of a molecular atom scattered in every city and town like stars in the sky.

Then you wonder whether profit is really what keeps them going as they scramble for the market of units and phone callers. The business is predominantly in the hands of ladies, mostly young ones.

Competition among network service providers led to the exploration of a potentially worthwhile market segment of phone callers. The telephone bureau operators immediately ventured into the business to cash in on the existing high demand for the service. Many jumped onto the bandwagon to connect people everywhere.

But now success of the bureau business appears to have succumbed to the scientific principle of survival of the fittest as competition has rapidly picked up

The reduction in price of phone handsets by network service companies in the country has significantly cut down the business of telephone bureau operators further, with some now taking home very little to feed their families.

"Cheaper phone units top up cards used to be at K140 each (U$1) and mobile phone handsets were ranging from K9,000.00 (U$64) upwards but now you can buy a mobile phone as cheap as K1,500 (U$10) while phone units have gone down to K40 (U$0.28) scratch cards.

"As a result, sometimes I go home with as little as K50 (U$0.36) or K75 (U$0.53) profit per day," lamented Luwiza Misulu, a Ndirande based telephone bureau operator.

Misulu started the bureau business to earn money to pay school fees for her two children but her dream is beginning to fail due to stiff competition in the market place.

She says facilities like "Please Call Me" provided to network subscribers also contribute to low profits in her business, because she said people use the facilities without having units in their phones.

Another telephone bureau operator, Mary Chathumba, who started her business in 2007, making high profits, also complains that she is now struggling to comfortably survive as her profits have dwindled.

Chathumba started the business with the same reasons as Misulu-to provide for the basic needs of her family on food and paying school fees for her children.

"Operating the bureau is no longer as an attractive business as it used to be in those days. In the past I could make K1,500 per day and K10, 000 per week but today I go home with K200.00 per day and K1, 400 per week," she said with a worried look on her face, adding people were not phoning or buying units at her bureau because of financial hardships.

Misulu and Chathumba are not the only ones making minimal profits in the bureau industry and their industry is not very different as minibus operators also complain of raking little. Perhaps they are earning normal profits from equilibrium prices for their services.


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