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Across the Serengeti Plains, Roaming Minutes

Low-cost cellphones turn out to be 'a perfect fit' for millions in impoverished Africa, and put a new spin on traditional businesses.

October 23, 2005|Rodrique Ngowi | Associated Press Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — Amina Harun, a 45-year-old farmer, used to wander around for hours looking for a working payphone on which to call markets and find the best prices for her fruit.

Then cellphones changed her life.

"We can easily link up with customers, brokers and the market," she said, sitting between two piles of watermelons at Wakulima Market in Kenya's capital.

Harun is one of a rapidly swelling army of connected Africans -- an estimated 100 million of the continent's 906 million people. Another is Omar Abdulla Saidi, phoning in from his sailboat on the Zanzibar coast, looking for the port that will give him the biggest profit on his freshly caught red snapper, tuna and shellfish.

Then there are the South Africans and Kenyans slinging cellphones around 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 cellphone when he's traveling in the West African interior.

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

The numbers are staggering.

Cellphones made up 74.6% of all African phone subscriptions last year, says the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union. Cellphone subscriptions jumped 67% south of the Sahara in 2004, compared with 10% in cellphone-saturated Western Europe, said Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese who chairs Celtel, a leading African provider.

An industry that barely existed 10 years ago is now worth $25 billion, he said. Prepaid air minutes are the preferred means of signing up, and have created their own $2-billion-a-year industry of vendors, said the Celtel chief . Air minutes have even become a form of currency, transactable from phone to phone by text message, he said.

This is particularly useful in Africa, where transferring small amounts of money through banks is costly.

"We are developing unique ways to use the phone, which has not been done anywhere else," said Michael Joseph, a South African who is chief executive officer of Safaricom, one two service providers in Kenya. For an impoverished continent, low-cost phones make "a perfect fit."

And cash-strapped governments that had to give up their monopoly on land lines are looking to reap huge revenues from license fees, customs duties and taxes on calls.

"We all misread the market," said Joseph.

The mistake had been to make assumptions based on GDP figures, which ignored the strong informal economy, providers said. Because land line use was low, officials had thought there was little demand for phones.

But demand was weak because land lines were expensive, subscribers had to wait months to get hooked up, and poor maintenance, floods and theft of copper cables made the land lines unreliable.

Cellphones go around all those obstacles and provide African solutions to African problems.

Wildlife researchers in Kenya and South Africa have put no-frill cellphones in weatherproof cases attached to a collar on an elephant's neck. The phone sends a message every hour, revealing the animal's whereabouts.

It cuts the cost of tracking wildlife by up to 60%, says Wouter van Hoven, a professor at the University of Pretoria's Center for Wildlife Management.

"You don't have to walk around the bush searching for the animals," he said. "I have sat around in Europe and was able to monitor animals in the mountains using a cellphone that had access to the Internet."

Saidi, the Zanzibar fisherman, can now check beforehand whether prices justify taking his catch to the Tanzanian mainland, while Wilson Kuria Macharia, head of the traders' association at the Nairobi market, says he no longer has to spend two to four weeks at a time roaming across Kenya and Tanzania in search of fresh produce.

"A few mobile phone calls take care of what used to be the most grueling part of the business," said Macharia, 61.

Cellphones also make traders more competitive, he says, meaning better prices for farmers.

People who don't own a cellphone can use public telephone centers linked to cellular networks, creating badly needed jobs.

In Nigeria, privately run cellphone services arrived in 2001 and started out charging $150 just to sign up. Four years later, four companies vie for customers by offering free sign-ups and introductory air minutes.

The number of subscribers in the nation of more than 130 million has jumped from about 700,000 to more than 10 million, and hawkers make a living selling air time cards to motorists trapped in traffic.

On the downside, however, it's been a way for robbers to tack would-be marks. Bus passengers on cross-country journeys have to turn off their cellphones because criminals are known to use them to coordinate highway robberies.

Inevitably, cellphones have become status symbols. "If you do not have one, your friends will laugh at you and say that you are outmoded," Akpene Rose, 23, a hairdressing student in Togo, a tiny West African country where every sixth person is estimated to have a cellphone.

And, just as inevitably, there are those who wish they had never been invented.

Ayi Aime, a 60-year-old Togolese, said both her school-age daughters had cellphones. "I do not know how they got them. I do not mind," she said. "But the persistent noisemaking, constant ringing, has become a nuisance."


Associated Press reporters Dulue Mbachu in Lagos, Nigeria; Ebow Godwin in Lome, Togo; and Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone contributed to this report.

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