Friday, November 11, 2005

Cell Phones in Africa: Where is the Logic?


It comes in different shapes, colors and sizes; the smaller the better it seems to the multitude of users in Africa. One of my countrymen, and colleague in the Blogoshere, even has a blog- Phonerism dedicated solely to them. It is no longer a status symbol, or yuppies' toy. It is now a utility tool. So ubiquitous it is that it can be found clutched in many hands and hidden in countless handbags, just to reveal its presence unexpectedly with the characteristic often distracting and annoying sounds. From Ericsson to Treo; this is is the world of the cell phones. Africa is all wired up wirelessly, and for the better too.

So if you ain’t got one, you ain’t nobody. Simple. Many even have two, three, etc- for each network. As crazy as this may seem, it is actually a pragmatic attempt to beat the often epileptic and unreliable network coverage. If one of the network is acting-up, it is just a matter of whipping out another phone rigged to a different network, and bam, the call is made.

With respect to Africa, Cell phones seemed to have defied every logic there is. This is because initial predictions were based “on the typical land-line user, someone with a bank account, a job and a fixed address. No predictions could have been more inaccurate! From the corporate offices in downtown Lagos and Jo’burg to the most remote region in the Congo; cell phone users abound, from the sophisticated banker to the illiterate roadside petty trader", writes Sharon LaFraniere in her New York Times article titled: “Cell phones Catapult Rural Africa to 21st Century”.

Logic versus value creation

The following excerpts from Sharon's article speak well to the issues of logic and value creation in regard to the use of cell phones in Africa.
“On this dry mountaintop, 36-year-old Bekowe Skhakhane does even the simplest tasks the hard way. Fetching water from the river takes four hours a day. To cook, she gathers sticks and musters a fire. Light comes from candles. But when Ms. Skhakhane wants to talk to her husband, who works in a steel factory 250 miles away in Johannesburg, she does what many in more developed regions do: she takes out her mobile phone. People like Ms. Skhakhane have made Africa the world's fastest-growing cell phone market...”
"Executives of the MTN Group, another major African mobile operator, say the company's Nigerian network cost two and a half times as much as its South African network because of lack of infrastructure. But demand is so intense that MTN is adding hundreds of new base stations. Demand for air time was so strong in Nigeria that from late 2002 to early 2003 operators there were forced to suspend the sale of subscriber identity module cards, or SIM cards, which activate handsets, while they strengthened their networks..."
"Villagers in the two jungle provinces of Congo are so eager for service that they have built 50-foot-high tree houses to catch signals from distant cell phone towers. "One man uses it as a public pay phone," said Gilbert Nkuli, deputy managing director of Congo operations for Vodacom Group, one of Africa's biggest mobile operators. Those who want to climb to his platform and use his phone pay him for the privilege..."
"One pilot program allows about 100 farmers in South Africa's northeast to learn the prevailing prices for produce in major markets, crucial information in negotiations with middlemen. Health-care workers in the rural southeast summon ambulances to distant clinics via cell phone. One woman living on the Congo River, unable even to write her last name, tells customers to call her cell phone if they want to buy the fresh fish she sells. "She doesn't have electricity, she can't put the fish in the freezer," said Mr. Nkuli of Vodacom. "So she keeps them in the river," tethered live on a string, until a call comes in. Then she retrieves them and readies them for sale..."
"Congo was in the midst of a civil war when Alieu Conteh, a telecommunications entrepreneur, began building a cellular network there in the 1990's. No foreign manufacturer would ship a cell phone tower to the airport with rebels nearby, so Mr. Conteh hired local men to collect scrap and weld a tower together. Now Vodacom, which formed a joint venture with him in 2001, is grappling with other problems. Its trucks get stuck in the mud. A crane is out of the question; it takes 15 to 20 men to haul each satellite dish into place with ropes. Base stations must be powered by generators. Each morning, executives send instant messages to employees containing the latest rate for the plunging local currency...
The versatility of cell phones in Africa is also captured succinctly by this post titled: Phone Card Currency.

One problem remains even in the age of cutting-edge cellular technology: How does an African family in a hut lit by candles charge a mobile phone?

According to Sharon,..."the solution is often a car battery owned by someone who does not have a prayer of acquiring a car..."

My two cents

So by the end of this decade in the African continent, will the incursion of cell phones signify the greatest technological break-through?

Perhaps the unstated message in these posts may be that business ventures that add value to peoples lives, particularly in emerging economies, will almost certainly prevail over those that focus more on logic. The ability to strike a balance between the two, while difficult, is key to sustainability and success.