“Eyes could kill me each time I walked about the streets with my handset,”
says Siri Nchise, a 29‑year‑old customer service representative for an Internet service provider in the African city of Douala, in the Littoral Province of Cameroon. In the past five years, she’s had three cellphones stolen. She keeps buying new ones, because they are the only practical way to connect to friends, family, and business associates.
On a continent where rolling blackouts, undrinkable water, and fetid mounds of refuse remain the stuff of everyday existence, wireless telecommunications services stand out as a rare, perhaps unique, technological success story. Tens of millions of ordinary Africans just like Nchise carry cellphones today, something not even the richest of them could have possessed barely a decade ago. And every month, millions more dial into the 21st century, with profound implications for African economies and societies.
It might come as a surprise that sub‑Saharan Africa— with 34 of the 50 poorest countries on Earth according to the United Nations—is now the world’s fastest growing wireless market. But there’s no arguing with the statistics: the number of mobile subscribers in 30 sub‑Saharan Africa countries, not including South Africa, rose from zero in 1996 to more than 82 million in late 2004, according to the latest figures from the International Telecommunication Union, in Geneva. The rate of growth for the entire continent has been more than 82 percent per year compared with the 33 percent annual growth rate in the Americas; in Cameroon, Kenya, Senegal, and Tanzania, growth rates are running in excess of 300 percent. Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, with 140 million inhabitants, has only about 500 000 landlines, or approximately 1 for every 280 people. In that country 19 million mobile phone subscribers have signed on since 2000, and the Nigerian Communications Commission projects the total number of subscribers to grow to 50 million by 2010.
Africa is going wireless for a very simple reason: its national telecommunications monopolies are poorly managed and corrupt, and they can’t afford to lay new lines or maintain old ones. So in most sub‑Saharan countries not even 1 percent of the population have landline‑connected telephones. That compares with more than 10 lines per 100 people in Latin America and more than 64 per 100 in the United States. Indeed, Tokyo and New York City each has more fixed‑line telephones than the whole of sub‑Saharan Africa. These numbers are even more daunting when you consider that fixed lines tend to be concentrated in capital cities, leaving rural communities totally bereft. For instance, while the country of Senegal has about 140 000 lines, 65 percent, or 91 000, of those lines are in the capital city of Dakar.
More than just inadequate landline networks and institutions are fueling Africa’s wireless boom. Growing political stability has helped to attract foreign investors to a region decimated by civil wars over the past 50 years. And the far simpler logistics of getting a wireless network up and running are also an enormous factor in sub‑Saharan Africa, where even the seemingly straightforward can turn out to be anything but.
During our recent travels in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and our home country of Cameroon, we’ve seen why wireless networks have succeeded so spectacularly where landlines had failed so miserably. Landlines can take years to install even after the right palms have been greased, while you have only to buy a handset and prepaid cellphone calling card to get a wireless line. In addition, companies can erect base stations that cover a radius of 35kilometers for much less than it would cost to run copper cables from central exchanges to every customer’s phone.
But that’s only part of the story. The African cellphone revolution thrives on a combination of a novel business model introduced a decade ago in South Africa and some clever calling tactics that have made cellphone usage affordable for a large segment of the population. As a result, growing numbers of Africans at the top, middle, and even bottom rungs of the economic ladder depend on the wireless sector for their livelihoods. But can the region sustain the wireless sector’s phenomenal growth rates and accompanying prosperity? And does the capital flowing in and out of these countries via transnational wireless corporations represent a sustainable infusion of desperately needed foreign investment or neocolonialism dressed up as a free market bonanza.
Mbarika, V. & Mbarika, I. (2006). Africa calling: burgeoning wireless networks connect Africans to the world and each other. IEEE Spectrum, 43(5), 56-60.