Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Wireless Africa

This really isn’t news since I’ve been reading about it for years, but I’ve always found it interesting. Africans have skipped traditional landline telephone technology and moved right to cell phones. The poorer nations that make up much of the continent never had the economic wherewithal to create anything close to universal phone systems. The wires and poles needed for the phone infrastructure was too costly.

Then came cell phones:
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) -- Amina Harun, a 45-year-old farmer, used to traipse around for hours looking for a working pay phone on which to call the markets and find the best prices for her fruit.

Then cell phones changed her life.

"We can easily link up with customers, brokers and the market," she says, sitting between two piles of watermelons at Wakulima Market in Kenya's capital. Harun is one of a rapidly swelling army of wired-up Africans -- an estimated 100 million of the continent's 906 million people.


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

The numbers are staggering.

Cell phones made up 74.6 percent of all African phone subscriptions last year, says the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union. Cell phone subscriptions jumped 67 percent south of the Sahara in 2004, compared with 10 percent in cell-phone-saturated Western Europe, according to 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 says. Prepaid air minutes are the preferred means of usage and have created their own
$2 billion-a-year industry of small-time vendors, the Celtel chief says. Air minutes have even become a form of currency, transactable from phone to phone by
text message, he says.
I see all of this as a positive for Africa. The better communications is bound to give commerce a leg-up, maybe helping pull the poorer nations out of desperate poverty. Of course, this positive development is swimming against the current of bad news like AIDS and other diseases, war and famine.

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