Fri, Sep 16, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Mobile phones ring in changes across Africa

With subscribers rising from 72,000 to 25 million in 10 years, a revolution is sweeping across sub-Saharan Africa


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.

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