Cell Phones in Africa

By Deane Barker on October 17, 2005

Cell phones reshaping Africa: Interesting article on the effect of cell phones in Africa.

[…] there are South Africans and Kenyans slinging cell phones round the necks of elephants to track them through bush and jungle. And there’s Beatrice Enyonam, a cosmetics vendor in Togo, keeping in touch with her husband by cell phone when he’s traveling in the West African interior.

As cell-phone relay towers sprout on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti plain, providers are racing to keep up with their exploding market.

There are several things at work here.

  1. Cell phones have solved a perpetual problem: how to talk with someone who is not in front of you at the moment. We take this for granted in the first world, but think about it — what if you could never talk to someone unless they were standing in front of you? Your life would become much more complicated, and this is exactly what millions of Africans are confronted with every day. Remove this restriction and the implications are huge.

  2. Cell phones have less…stuff, like we discussed here. There are towers, but they’re not connected to each other. There are handsets, but they’re not tethered to the wall. In a country with as much social turmoil and difficulty with transportation as Africa, having less physical stuff to maintain is critical.

  3. Cell phones are being ushered in by a wave of private companies, unlike the traditional phone service which has often been taken over and monopolized by local governments. Traditional companies have a tendency to get corrupted in countries where the rule of law isn’t as strong as it could be, but private enterprise and competition provides some incentive for companies to keep customers happy.

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Comments

  1. I noticed this when in Cameroon early last year; cell phones were everywhere. It wasn’t unusual to see someone walking along a red dirt road 50 miles from a city, wearing a traditional tribal outfit, and talking on a cell phone. Not unusual, but strange. And you’d see vendors in open air markets selling cell phones and calling time next to freshly slaughtered chickens.

    And it only makes sense for the Africans to use cell phones in place of landline phones. Besides the corruption of the telephone providers, there is also the problem of poorly developed and maintained infrastructure, which makes landline phones almost impossible to get and impossible to keep working for any time at all.

    Everyone that I spoke with there used a pay-as-you-go system, rather than the sign-up-and-we’ll-bill-you system we’re accustomed to in the US. The postal system is almost as bad as the landline phone system, so the providers probably saw pay-as-you-go as the only viable way to get paid for their service.

  2. Traditional companies have a tendency to get corrupted in countries where the rule of law isn’t as strong as it could be, but private enterprise and competition provides some incentive for companies to keep customers happy.

    Um, right. As opposed to, say, the US, for example, where the rule of law, well, rules, and prevents such corruption of private enterprise and the competitive environment by traditional companies and big industry players.

  3. As opposed to, say, the US, for example, where the rule of law, well, rules, and prevents such corruption of private enterprise and the competitive environment by traditional companies and big industry players.

    Point taken.

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