For Africa, a godsend in cellphones

Friday, August 26, 2005

YANGUYE, South Africa On this dry mountaintop, 24 miles down a washboard dirt road from the nearest town, 36-year-old Bekowe Skhakhane must do 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. The older of her five children hike three hours to school each way.

But when Skhakhane wants to talk to her husband, who works in a steel factory 250 miles, or 400 kilometers away, in Johannesburg, she does what many Westerners would do: She whips out her mobile phone.

People like Skhakhane have made Africa the world’s fastest-growing cellphone market. From 1999 through 2004, the number of mobile subscribers in Africa jumped to 76.8 million from 7.5 million, an average annual increase of 58 percent. South Africa, the continent’s richest nation, accounted for one-fifth of that growth. Asia, the next fastest-expanding market, grew by an annual average of just 34 percent in that period.

“It is a necessity,” said Skhakhane, pausing from washing laundry in a plastic bucket on the dirt ground to fish her blue Nokia out of the pocket of her flowered apron. “Buying air time is part of my regular grocery list.” She spends the equivalent of $1.90 a month for five minutes of air time.

Africans have never been rabid telephone users; even Mongolians have twice as many land lines per person. And, with the majority of Africans living on $2 a day or less, they were supposed to be too poor to justify corporate investments in cellular networks far outside the continent’s more prosperous cities and towns. But when African nations began to privatize their telephone monopolies in the mid-1990s, and competitive operators began to sell air time in smaller, cheaper units, cellphone use exploded. Used handsets are readily available for $50 or less in South Africa, an amount even Skhakhane’s husband was able to finance with the little he saves from his factory job.

It turned out that Africans had never been big phone users because nobody had given them the chance.

One in 11 Africans is now a mobile subscriber. 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, used to activate a handset, 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, or 15-meter-high, treehouses to catch a signal from distant cellphone 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.

On a continent where some remote villages still communicate by beating drums, cellphones are a technological revolution akin to television in the 1940s in the United States. In Africa, which has an average of just one land-line phone for every 33 people, cellphones are enabling millions of people to skip a technological generation and bound straight from letter writing to instant messaging. Although only about 60 percent of Africans are within reach of a signal – the lowest level in the world – the technology is for many a social and economic godsend.

One pilot program allows about 100 farmers in South Africa’s northeast to learn the prevailing prices for produce in the country’s major markets information – crucial in negotiations with middlemen.

Healthcare workers in the nation’s rural southeast summon ambulances to distant clinics via cellphone. One woman living on the Congo River, unable even to write her last name, tells customers to call her cellphone 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 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.

William Pedro, 51, a mixed-race plant dealer, said he tried for eight years to lure customers to his nursery in a ragtag township near George, a resort town on South Africa’s southern coast. Only when he got a cellphone two years ago, he said, did his business take off.

“White people are afraid to come here to my place in the township to buy plants,” Pedro said, standing outside his makeshift greenhouses. “So now they can phone me for orders and I can deliver them the same day.”

Mobile operators cannot put up towers fast enough not just in established markets like South Africa, which is already home to about one in four African mobile subscribers, but also in nations that barely have electricity, much less existing cellular networks ready for expansion.

Congo, whose capital is Kinshasa, was in the midst of a civil war when Alieu Conteh, a telecommunications entrepreneur, began building a cellular network there in the 1990s. No foreign manufacturer would ship a cellphone tower to the airport with rebels nearby, so 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. 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.

Despite all that, Vodacom Congo has 1.1 million subscribers, is adding more than 1,000 daily and predicts profits.

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

In Yanguye, as in other regions, the solution is often a car battery owned by someone who does not have a prayer of acquiring a car. Ntombenhle Nsele keeps one in her home a few miles down the road from Skhakhane’s. She takes it by bus 20 miles to the nearest town to charge it in a gas station.

For 80 cents a head, Nsele, 25, lets neighbors charge their mobiles from the battery. She gets at least five customers a week. “Oooh, a lot of people,” she said, smiling. “Too many.”

Source: The International Herald Tribune (link opens in a new window)