Digital Content

How many letters did you post last year? What about seven years back? Most respondents to the two questions in a recent survey by Business Vision indicated they were posting less letters year after year. They said they have instead sent messages through short message services, mobile phones and electronic mail. This reflects the challenge postal and courier service companies are facing, as new communication technologies penetrate the Ugandan society. ‘We used to write letters home to ask for pocket money but today a student uses only sh300 at a public phone and calls the parents. Sometimes they even beep,’ Christopher Male, a worker at an Internet café on Bombo Road in Kampala, said.

Rather than the traditional brisk business for postal services in big boarding schools, it is now the public pay phone operators reaping big. ‘My father has no personal postal address, but the mobile phone is always in his pocket and I will get instant response if I called him,’ Clare Katumba, a student at Makerere University Business School, whose home is in Rakai district said. The cost of a postage stamp at Posta Uganda is sh400 for sending local mail. However, about the same amount or less can be used to make a phone call. International courier companies charge up to about sh50,000 for a an express mail delivery to the US, but one can send the same messages by electronic mail (e-mail) by only paying sh250 for some 10 minutes at an Internet café.

But the post and courier businesses are not destined for closure. While many of them have introduced innovations for survival, others say the new communication technology is, instead, an opportunity. ‘It is an opportunity to open up new avenues for the post business,’ said Miriam Odaka, the communications manager at Posta Uganda, formerly Uganda Posts Limited. ‘Initially, the Post Office was supposed to be delivering mail and mail meant paper. Today the concept of mail has changed to include electronic communication,’ she said. Odaka said Posta Uganda, was working with two telephone service providers, MTN Uganda and uganda telecom, to offer their customers a complete package of communication services. ‘It is a global trend of change in the post business.

Posta Office is supposed to be at the centre of society. We are looking ourselves as a meeting point to facilitate exchange of goods and money,’ Odaka said. She said the personal letter volumes, on which the observers focus analysis, were contributing just a small percentage of the total mail volumes and the entire postal business. ‘Personal letters have never been our core business. The main focus is the corporate mails whose volumes have been expanding rapidly,’ she said, without giving figures. Odaka said the high demand for postal box rentals had prompted them to introduce services that do not demand physical letter boxes. ‘May be people are communicating more, I am yet to get a person’s business card with e-mail and telephone addresses but without a box number,’ she responded to whether people were not resorting to e-mail.

‘Our money transfers have been eased with the new technology, she said, ‘Instead of using the fax to communicate to our centres, we are now using electronic mail,’ she said. Posta Uganda has also opened up Internet cafés at the main Post Office in Kampala, in Mbarara, Kabale and other parts of the country. ‘It is an opportunity for our customers and us as well, we only have to think how we can utilise it,’ said Odaka. The East African Couriers marketing coordinator in Kampala, Moses Karuhanga concurs. ‘The new technology is actually helping to improve services for our customers,’ he said recently. ‘Once a transaction is concluded on the Internet and money transfers made, then we do the work of transferring parcels and cargo,’ he added. FedEx has several cargo planes operating worldwide. They also deliver speed mails across borders. Karuhanga, however, said the impact of new technologies was evident on documents but not the parcels.

The documents have been affected negatively-and seriously by the way,’ he said. He said the volumes mailed abroad could have reduced by about 40% in the recent years. He however said there were some documents like bank statements requiring original signatures and stamps that cannot be sent by e-mail, and this would remain totally a business of courier companies. But some technology experts warned that if any business were focussing on this for future planning, they were headed for a shock.

‘Things will change. Look at what banks were doing seven years ago and what they are doing today. There were no ATMs. Today they are there. The banks have linked up their branches. With time they will certainly have to accept on-line transactions,’ said Cherinet Bejiga, a software engineer at Haron Computers, dealers in communication technology. ‘The technology impact on postal services is enormous, and they are not alone. Secretaries will lose jobs. Even the print media is affected by the Internet.’ ‘If you want to prove this go to the Post Office and see how many people are lining to send letters, and then move to the Internet cafés and compare the numbers. He said the cost of sending a letter by post office involves buying paper, a pen and an envelope, all of which are not required for phone call, SMS, or e-mail.