Future Tense

How the WhatsApp Outage Hurt Small Businesses in India

A hand holds a smartphone displaying a message that says, "Send and receive money securely with UPI."
In India, many small businesses use WhatsApp for everything, including receiving payment. Money Sharma/Getty Images

NEW DELHI, INDIA— On late Monday evening, 23-year-old Sana Imitiyaz Hussani was, as usual, wearing a salwar suit (traditional Indian attire) with a white apron bearing a pink label that said “Sweet Temptations by Sana Imitiyaz.” After putting the final touches on cake orders, she pulled out her mobile phone to send a WhatsApp message to the delivery service that would take the treats to her customers. But she couldn’t reach the service.

Sana started her home-based bakery business out of Srinagar, the largest city in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in early 2017, and used Instagram to get the word out. Now, she has more than 11,800 followers and has hired three employees to keep up with orders. But when she couldn’t send the message to the delivery service on Monday, she was confused.

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“I thought in all probability my internet is not functioning. I connected to a Wi-Fi, it still did not work. I waited for few extra minutes and tried to follow up over again but a similar problem persisted. I tried to switch to my Instagram account but could hardly open it,” she told me. (We spoke in Urdu; I have translated her quotes and others in this piece into English.)

Sana switched to Twitter only to read that Facebook and social media apps it owns—including WhatsApp and Instagram—had suffered a major global outage and were not working throughout the world. It could have been a crisis for her.

“The addresses of my clients were in the Instagram messenger and [I] would have not been able to map out them. The customers too could barely have found me because I do not have a physical shop,” She said. The good news was that she had created a way to port her customers’ cellphone numbers into her own phone. “I called them all and went out to deliver the orders on my own.”

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But there was another problem. All of her payments come through apps, too. WhatsApp and other social media accounts make transactions a hassle-free experience. It lets business owners and their customers share account details and receive screenshots to confirm that the payments have been submitted.

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“Currently, we have a prime season of weddings in Kashmir, and in every function, two to three cakes are required, and a single order ranges anywhere from $24 to $187.” Worse, she said, “This is a delicate item that can go stale in hours and even a single order being not delivered can cost me an entire day’s income.”

Monday’s outage of Facebook services worldwide, which lasted about six hours, hit India especially hard. India is WhatsApp’s biggest market with 530 million WhatsApp users, according to the Indian government. The country also has 210 million Instagram users and 410 million people on Facebook. This week’s was not the country’s first experience with a WhatsApp blackout: In 2020 alone, four major WhatsApp outages occurred, but they were relatively brief, with the largest one lasting about three hours.

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The recent outage hit small businesses particularly hard. According to the government, India has the third largest startup ecosystem in the world and it expects annual growth of 12-15 percent. Nearly 14 percent of the estimated 50,000 startups are run by women, and the majority of the small businesses, from small towns to big cities, are entirely dependent social media sites to communicate.

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On Monday, “people panicked throughout India,” said Anil Tiwari, an internet expert based out of Lucknow. Even figuring out what was going on was difficult; he pointed out that “only 2.7 percent [of the] population of India are on Twitter.”  People in small towns were able to turn to SMS messages instead, reducing the harm to small businesses, “but in metro cities where businesses majorly run on apps, it created an impact,” he told me.

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The fact that the outage began around 8 p.m. in India might seem to have lessened the effects—but that’s not the case. For businesses with a major social media presence, “the viewership is high during the night” said Manish Mehta, a social media analyst in India.

Neeta Jessani had an experience much like Sana’s. The 28-year-old baker runs a home-based business called “Monkey Temptation” in Chennai. On Monday, she was repeatedly scrolling through her mobile phone in the hope that the app would load so she could dial the delivery boy to pick up an order.

Jessani runs a home-based venture and sells cakes, soufflés, and other desserts under the banner “Monkey Temptation.”

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“I was frustrated when the outage happened because once I confirm the order with any client on Instagram afterward the entire route goes through WhatsApp. We send the customer messages that the order has been placed with particular requirements and specifications to be noted and confirmed,” she said.

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Jessani has studied interior designing from the prestigious Chennai National School of Design and after working as an Interior designer full time for 8 years she switched to full-time baking in 2020. She thought that the internet and technology would make it easy to follow her dream of a home-based venture.

On average Jessani receives six to seven requests every day, usually in the evening, for events that will take place the next night. But on Monday she received none. On Tuesday she had no work to do and no orders to deliver.

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“I had an idea about minor issues that I might have to face when I switched careers, but after the outage, I felt I am sailing in the middle of nowhere with orders to be delivered and queries to be replied for orders to be delivered the next day,” Jessani said, “I am a one-man army handling this start-up alone and after this the only thing that my mind was mapping [was] food wastage and losses.”

Jessani regularly delivers her orders through online delivery apps like Swiggy and Dunzo, which both depend on WhatsApp.

“I make sure that I update my clients about the delivery time, who will deliver, and which service I am using to dispatch their order. With this outage, I felt as if life and services came to a … halt,” she told me.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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