The roads are dirt tracks, the children are barefoot and there are no street lights in Funyula village, western Kenya. But as darkness falls and villagers huddle around paraffin lamps, three red neon lights come to life on a hillside overlooking their huts. They illuminate a mobile-phone mast, the latest addition to the landscape.
Africa is in the grip of a mobile-phone revolution. In the past 10 years, subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa have risen from 72,000 -- excluding South Africa -- to a forecast 25.5 million this year. As rival operators compete in the world's fastest-growing market, networks are spreading to rural areas such as Funyula.
Since the base station in Funyula started up last month, three entrepreneurs have started public phone booths using landline-style handsets with mobile technology. At one booth, Yuanina Juma pulled a crumpled letter from her bag and punched in her husband's number. He is away working in the capital, Nairobi.
"When are you coming back?" she asked, as her one-year-old son held on to her skirt. "You have to send me money, because I am broke."
At another booth beside a bus shelter, Angelina Odhuor called her son-in-law, who works in a hospital in the Rift Valley region.
"My daughter needs school fees," she told him. "Can you help us?"
Queueing behind her, Evelyn Anyango waited to call her uncle in Uganda: "I am calling him to come because there is a funeral. My little sister died of malaria."
In a culture where people travel long distances to find work, the mobile has become the most useful and ubiquitous piece of technology since the bicycle. Just as bicycles are used in rural Africa to transport bananas or paying passengers, the mobile is changing lives in ways unimagined in the developed world. It links distant families and allows the poor to communicate.
The phone companies initially expected mobiles to be a toy for the elite, but some 80 percent of Kenyan operator Safaricom's business comes from its cheapest top-up, worth the equivalent of US$1.30.
Using small amounts of credit on a pre-paid mobile suits a hand-to-mouth society where even daily goods such as margarine or tea are sold in tiny packets.
Those who lack the credit to call often resort to "flashing" -- calling another number for a few seconds and then waiting to be called back. The practice is considered rude, but it is very popular.
Phone booth operators in Funyula make money that way, charging customers US$0.03 a time to "flash" someone. Mobiles are more reliable than fixed lines, which suffer from copper theft and get washed away in the rainy season.
As in the UK, the fixed-line phone booth has been a victim of the mobile's success. There are three landline booths in Funyula which are either out of order or disused. Mobiles have an economic impact, too. Fishermen on Lake Victoria are trying to use their phones to get a better price for their catch.
"We call fishermen on the other beaches to see if the fish are plentiful," said Lucas Ratory, leaning on his boat. "If there are fewer fish, we can try to get a better price."
But their bargaining power is limited through lack of cold storage. Even if the men know there are fewer fish that day, the firms who buy their fish can leave the catch to rot if the price is too high.
The new technology has had a bigger impact on shopkeepers and tradesmen, who use it to keep in touch with suppliers and customers.
"Before we got a signal here, I was doing five or six jobs a week," electrician Isaac Kamande said. "Now I'm doing 20 or 30 jobs a week."
"Before, people had to call the landline, which was not all that reliable. On rainy days, it goes off. Maybe there would be an emergency, but customers couldn't reach me -- they had to send somebody with a message," he said.
Mobiles could change the face of banking in Africa. Without steady incomes the poor cannot open bank accounts or get credit cards, but new mobile services offer a way of moving money that bypasses banks.
In Kenya, operators Safaricom and Celtel allow customers to buy airtime and transfer it to another customer's phone via SMS. That means a customer in Nairobi can pay for the time and then send it on to a cousin in a distant village. Once the airtime is credited to the cousin's phone, it can be exchanged for cash or bartered for other goods.
In Funyula, some families already receive airtime from wealthier relatives in this way. Analysts believe that phones could become electronic wallets.
"From the consumer point of view, one of the main constraints to economic growth in Africa is the lack of credit cards," said Tim Kelly, head of the strategy and policy unit at the International Telecommunication Union, a UN agency. "If the established credit-card companies do not fill this market gap, it is likely that mobile-phone operators will."
Mobiles are proving to be a force for democracy too. In the run-up to the Ethiopian elections in May, text messaging was used to advertise political parties for the first time.
"A nation with poor communications is one in which the citizenry is obliged to make personal visits to government offices for even the most trivial requests," Kelly said. "Mobile phones begin to change this process, both on the part of users, who can call instead of queueing, and on the part of government officials, who can deal with cases more efficiently."
Mobile use in Africa leapfrogged fixed lines as long ago as 2001, but it is still the least-connected continent. Some 40 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's inhabitants still live beyond a mobile signal, though that percentage is falling all the time as more base stations are erected.
Rival operators are competing fiercely for a slice of the vast untapped market. The key regional players are South Africa's MTN and Vodacom, in which UK firm Vodafone has a stake, and the Kuwaiti-owned Celtel International.
In recent years, the fastest growth has been seen in oil-rich Nigeria, where mobile phone use has rise from 30,000 in 2000 to more than 9 million by this year. MTN, which claims 9.5 million clients continent-wide, has a highly profitable operation there.
Vodacom's annual report says it has 15.5 million customers and is the market leader in the continent's richest country, South Africa. It is keen to expand in central Africa. Celtel says it has 5 million customers spread across 13 countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Sudan, a nation with oil wealth where profits could be large.
But there is still one major barrier: the cost of the handset.
"Africa demands a cheap, basic handset. People here don't want an MP3 player," said Les Baillie, chief financial officer of Kenya's Safaricom. "The problem is that manufacturers have all been making upgrades for their big market in Europe, but have ignored Africa."
That could be about to change. In February, a group of around 50 manufacturers pledged to develop a low-cost handset for sale for less than US$29, a solution which might be tailor-made for a poor continent desperate to get talking.
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