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At a recent meeting of the West African regional organisation of postal services (CPAO), delegates shared the pain they were taking from the impact of e-mail on their business. Business losses of between 5-15% were discussed. Although letters will never completely disappear, African postal services are a great deal more vulnerable than their developed world counterparts to e-competition: they have much lower volumes and the level of security they offer is often far from impressive. But all was not doom and gloom for these monopoly postal companies. Several pointed out that the revenues from their own cybercafes now exceeded those from their traditional post office activities.

West Africa’s postal service has been losing revenues to ISPs, particularly for letters and money orders. In response the postal services have had to review their strategies and respond to this new source of competition.

According to Ayité Mawutoé Agbaglo, Togo Post’s Director of Planning: "Many individuals today are in cybercafes all evening and use it for many of their communications needs which when cybercafes didn’t exist, they would have used letters for".

According to Arthur Kafando, Director General of the Société Nationale des postes du Burkina Faso: "I’ve been sounding the alarm on this since 2001. E-mails have undercut our postal business by 15%." PO Box subscribers much prefer to use e-mail: "E-mail costs much less and the message arrives instantly at its destination whereas the postal services are much slower", according to Kodjovi Viwassi, a student at the University of Lomé.

Sending a letter overseas from Togo costs more than 200 FCFAs and for the same amount it is possible to spend over half an hour acessing the internet at a cybercafe in Lomé:"In 30 minutes I can send and receive dozens of messages therefore I don’t see why I should use the postal service," says Déhouégnon Amouzou, an office worker in Togo’s capital.

Furthermore Togo’s 200 cybercafes have launched a price war so prices have come down and now vary between 200-300 FCFAs for an hour’s access. It is estimated that there are 350,000 internet users, more than 100,000 computers connected to the internet and about 40 ISPs. New internet access in secondary towns and some rural areas has seen postal volumes fall by between 5-10%.

In order to respond, West African postal services through la Conférence des postes de l’Afrique de l’ouest (CPAO) have negotiated a rate reduction with regional airlines for carrying the post. Its members - Bénin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Sénégal and Togo - are also talking about creating a hybrid service. Postal services have often themselves set up cybercafes and in certain cases these are making more revenue than the post offices themselves, according to Jean André Barré, Director of the Burkinabè postal service.

(Story based on report in