Monday, September 19, 2005

Africans & Cell Phone Usage

NAIROBI, Kenya 16 September 2005



Putting cell phone technology into the hands of Africans has resulted in ingenious solutions to everyday problems on the world's poorest continent - and in huge growth in the telecommunications business. Kenyan and South African researchers have used cell phones to monitor wildlife.

Fishermen and farmers can quickly gather information from several areas to help determine where and when they can get the best prices for their produce. Africans have even found a way to turn airtime into a virtual currency. All this on a continent whose people were long considered too poor to afford cell phones.

"We all misread the market," said Michael Joseph, chief executive officer of Safaricom, one of two service providers in Kenya. Joseph said the market was underestimated because entrepreneurs relied on data about the formal economy, such as GDP figures. That ignored a "very strong and informal economy, which allows Africans to live beyond the figures indicated by official statistics," said Martin de Koning, corporate communications chief for Celtel, one of Africa's leading cell phone companies.

The relatively low use of landlines may also have fooled entrepreneurs. But Africans didn't pass up land lines because they didn't want phones. The problem was that getting connected was difficult for the unemployed or informally employed, people without the cash deposit and patience to wait months for a connection. Landlines are also often out of service because of poor maintenance and theft of copper cables.

Cellular subscribers accounted for 74.6 percent of all telephone subscribers in Africa in 2004, according to the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union, which is responsible for standardization, coordination and development of international telecommunications. Africa now has the fastest growing mobile phone industry in the world -with some 100 million of its estimated 870 million people listed as subscribers, Celtel's Chairman Mo Ibrahim said. Last year, the number of subscribers in Africa south of the Sahara increased by 67 percent, compared to 10 percent in Western Europe.

There were more new mobile phone customers in Africa than in North America, Ibrahim said. The growth is being realized even as African governments seek to reap huge revenues from subscribers and service providers in the form of high license fees, customs duties, special mobile call taxes and other charges. In Africa, mobile communications have created a US$25 billion (?20.3 billion) industry that did not exist 10 years ago. Of this, some US$2 billion (?1.62 billion) from hundreds of thousands of indigenous entrepreneurs selling calling credit, Celtel's Ibrahim said. The uses to which Africans have put all those phones offer insight into life on their continent.

Cash-strapped wildlife researchers in Kenya and South Africa have put no-frills cell phones in weatherproof cases with a GPS receiver, memory card and software to operate the system. The unit, placed on a collar, is then tied around the neck of an elephant. As the elephants roam, "the GPS receives coordinates, downloads them onto the memory chip - and then every hour, the phone wakes up and sends a (short text message) of the last hour's coordinates to a central server," said Safaricom Joseph.

Then the phone goes to sleep until it's needed again, preserving battery power. The technology has enabled South Africa's researchers to save up to 60 percent in costs for tracking wildlife, said Professor Wouter van Hoven of the University of Pretoria's Center for Wildlife Management. Fisherman Omar Abdulla Saidi, standing beside a fishing boat propelled by a triangular sail in Zanzibar, an Indian Ocean archipelago off Tanzania, uses his cell phone to track markets.

The same is true for farmers, said Amina Harun, 45, who has grown and sold mangoes, oranges and other fresh fruits for 18 years in neighboring Kenya's port city of Mombasa. Harun said cell phones ended the days when she had to walk for hours, searching for a working public phone to call traders in various markets to find the best prices for produce from her six-acre (2.43-hectare) farm.

Thanks to cell phones, "we can easily link up with customers, brokers and the market," Harun said, seated between two piles of watermelons at Kenya's largest fresh fruit and vegetable trading center, the Wakulima Market. Wilson Kuria Macharia, head of the traders' association at the market, said he no longer has to spend between two weeks and a month traveling across Kenya and neighboring Tanzania in search of fresh vegetables. "A few mobile phone calls take care of what used to be the most grueling part of the business," Macharia, 61, said as workers offloaded a truckload of carrots.

Good communications have also brought stiffer competition between traders - translating to better prices for farmers, said Macharia who has been in the business for 41 years. People have opened public telephone centers linked to cell phone networks across Africa, creating much-needed employment. One service allows subscribers to transfer prepaid call credit, or airtime, from one phone to another through short text messages.

"Airtime is a currency of sorts. You can sell airtime and you can get real money. Or you can trade that airtime for something else to somebody else, who can then sell that airtime again," Safaricom's Joseph said. The ability to trade in airtime is useful in Africa, where the costs of transferring small amounts of money through banks or other financial institutions are relatively high, he said. "We are developing unique ways to use the phone, which has not been done anywhere else or is unique in Africa," Joseph said. "I always think that (cell phone technology) was designed for Africa, not for Europe - because it is such a perfect fit" for the impoverished continent.

Internet magazine on telecommunications in Africa:

International Telecommunication Union:


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