January 2, 2003
Wireless in Kenya Takes a Village
By Nick Wachira
NAIROBI, Kenya -- Kenyans love to talk. It's a fact two
cell-phone operators drastically underestimated in 2000 when
they were bidding for GSM licenses here.
When Vodafone UK sent Michael Joseph to Kenya in July 2000
to set up Safaricom, a cell-phone service operator jointly
owned by Telkom Kenya, he did not expect the subscriber base
to grow beyond 50,000 connections. Today, both Safaricom and
rival KenCell Communications (partly owned by Vivendi) have
nearly 1.3 million cell-phone subscribers.
"Wireless technology has had a tremendous effect on people's
lives in Kenya," said Joseph. Topping up mobile-phone
airtime using "scratch cards" is now a common activity for
millions of citizens who before had to walk many miles to
make a telephone call.
And the success story is not limited to this East African
country. It's a growing economic phenomenon that sheds light
on how emerging technology might spread across Africa in the
According to Mike Jensen, a South Africa telecommunications
consultant, the number of main telephone lines in Africa
grew by about 9 percent a year between 1995 and 2001. Still,
the number of customers on waiting lists for phone
installation clearly indicates the pent-up demand for
But marketing cell phones, which cost around $100, has not
been taken lightly in a region where more than half the
population lives on less than $2 a day.
Two words have revolutionized the spread of cell-phone usage
in Africa: community access.
While most people here cannot afford a cell phone, this has
not prevented thousands of poor villagers from transforming
their friends and families into walking communications
nodes. This setup is deeply rooted in the traditional
African communal mode of living, which many urban dwellers
Francis Nyamnjoh, an associate professor in the sociology
department at the University of Botswana, says African
cell-phone operators are finding they can mine profits from
these communal setups and, at the same time, transform
telecommunications services into mass-market products.
"Although connectivity in Africa is the lowest compared to
other regions of the world, the continent's sociality,
interconnectedness, interdependence and conviviality make it
possible for others to access the Internet and its
opportunities without necessarily being connected
themselves," Nyamnjoh said.
He says in many situations it takes a single individual to
own a cell phone or computer for whole groups of communities
"The same creativity displayed in relation to the Internet
is true of other technologies as well. The latest technology
to be domesticated is the cell phone," he said.
Nyamnjoh attributes the explosion of cell-phone usage to the
privatization of telcos across Africa. This has attracted
massive private capital investment in the telecommunications
This community access model is also proving to be a
rainmaker for cell-phone carriers. Recent research by
Merrill Lynch indicates that the average monthly revenue per
cell-phone user in Nigeria is much higher than that of South
Africa and the United States. Nigeria's economy is six times
smaller than that of South Africa and 1,000 times smaller
than that of the United States. This suggests that the
economic and social value of a cell phone in countries like
Nigeria is much higher than it is in Western nations.
"Contrary to popular opinion, conviviality is not always a
liability to profitability," said Nyamnjoh.
Copyright 2002, Lycos, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Communications & Technology Consultant
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