‘We plan to make Viber the No 1 messaging app in Nepal’

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Over the years, Viber has developed to become one of the most preferred messaging platforms in Nepal. Recently, Viber also released a Nepali version of its app to facilitate the use of the platform among Nepali users. Similarly, it recently cut off its ties with Facebook too. Sujan Dhungana of The Himalayan Times caught up with Djamel Agaoua, CEO at Rakuten Viber, to get an insight about Viber’s market in Nepal, its recent decision related to Facebook and other details: Excerpts:

‘We plan to make Viber the No 1 messaging app in Nepal’

Over the years, Viber has developed to become one of the most preferred messaging platforms in Nepal. Recently, Viber also released a Nepali version of its app to facilitate the use of the platform among Nepali users. Similarly, it recently cut off its ties with Facebook too. Sujan Dhungana of The Himalayan Times caught up with Djamel Agaoua, CEO at Rakuten Viber, to get an insight about Viber’s market in Nepal, its recent decision related to Facebook and other details: Excerpts:

Viber recently severed all ties with Facebook. Can you please elaborate what led to this step?

Viber has limited business relationship with Facebook. We basically had three business relationships with Facebook — the one related to Facebook Connect, advertising on Facebook and Giphy as a gift platform. All these relationships with Facebook were for the convenience of our customers. In the last two years, we have seen data privacy breaches on Facebook and we were looking at it carefully because we wanted to be ensured that Viber users are not affected by this. Similarly, the latest position of Facebook’s CEO about freedom of speech actually led us to the decision to cut our business ties with the company. Unfortunately, some African-American people died in the United States of America which led to an unrest in the country. People were protesting against the fact that people of colour die on the streets just because they are under the control of the police. In light of these events in the US, some people expressed themselves on social media networks using very aggressive, violent and racist words. These words were so racist and violent that Twitter decided to block these contents and if we had this kind of rhetoric on Viber, we would also have blocked it. However, Facebook’s position on the issue was shocking. Facebook’s position was basically that freedom of expression has no limits and that one can say whatever s/he wants to, even if it is racist or/and violent.

Viber is a diverse company and we have employees of different colours, religions and genders. We consider that public speeches must respect some rules. We need to act if someone breaches this rule because we have social responsibility as we are a public messaging platform. All these led us to cut our business ties with Facebook, which basically means that we have removed Facebook Connect from our application, we have removed Giphy platform which was accessible for Viber users and we have stopped all advertising expenses on Facebook.

Has this decision not affected Viber users?

It can affect Viber customers in two ways.

Firstly, our users are no longer able to use Facebook Connect application. Up to 10 per cent of Viber users had been using the app to upload their profile pictures. Though our users cannot use this facility anymore, we ensure that Viber will ease the process for our users to upload their pictures. Secondly, users will not be able to use Giphy to access gifts on Viber. But we have several other partners who are ensuring the availability of gift platforms on Viber. We do not think that Viber users will be much affected by the recent decision related to cutting ties with Facebook. We do not have a problem with Facebook users, but with Facebook as a company.

Is the aforementioned decision permanent or are there any chances of reconsidering it?

I heard some brands and companies decided to stop advertising on Facebook for one month or so, which is not our position. Ours is a long-term position. We believe that Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, is a brilliant and smart person and he had a strong position. He clearly expressed Facebook’s position on expressing on social sites. His position is contrary to and not compatible with Viber’s position. Facebook considered that anything can be said and freedom of expression has no limit while Viber considers that there are some limits. As I mentioned earlier, our position is a long-term position. Of course, if some day Facebook comes up with a different vision and joins us, Viber will be happy to reconsider its decision.

Let’s talk about the Nepal market for Viber. How has been your experience been so far and what are the growth prospects?

We have a very good relationship with people in Nepal, especially in Kathmandu region as people in Kathmandu are looking more outside the country and more motivated by international communication. Historically, Viber has been strong in Kathmandu than in other regions. Nepal is one of the countries Viber is happy with and investing in. Our growth in Nepal in last three years has been satisfying and we see a lot of potential for further growth. We have recently announced a localised version of our application in Nepal in Nepali language to simplify the use of Viber among local users. We plan to build more local partnerships in Nepal such as with banks and make the application more useful in everyday life for Nepali users. We will promote Viber as the main messaging app among Nepalis. We estimate Viber’s market share in Nepal at almost 40 per cent and the estimation is based on active Viber users and smartphone penetration in the country. Our ambition is to put Viber application on 90 per cent of smartphones in circulation in Nepal.

OTT services like Viber are often criticised to have eaten into the profits of telecom operators. What do you have to say on this?

It is an old story that has been proven wrong across many countries. It’s only related to the fact that telecom companies have historically built their revenue model on selling minutes of communication or number of messages sent. When OTT services came, telecoms too brought a lot of other services and stopped relying only on phone call and messaging revenues. In Nepal, Viber has partnered with the Ministry of Health and Population to provide the best source of information for COVID-19. We have partnered with banks and other institutions for seamless communication. All these services come with OTT. OTT generally requires data and these data are transferred through the network of telecoms. Thus, OTT services are also pushing the revenue of telecom firms. In fact, the revenue of telecom companies across the world has increased due to OTT services. So it is not true that OTT services are affecting their revenue. We are actually pushing up their revenue.

A version of this article appears in e-paper on August 15, 2020, of The Himalayan Times.

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