Africa Runs on Cellular

My house sits at the top of a small hill, a short upward climb from a gas station, where moto drivers in yellow numbered pinnie vests wash their vehicles on sunny afternoons, and rows of shops, identical to those that line nearly every road in Rwanda. The country is both densely populated and still mostly agrarian, resulting in what I have come to call “rural sprawl.” On the road, you are never more than five minutes from one of these rows, and you will always see the same thing: a line of concrete-block shops with pre-fab barred windows and a roof that pitches back like half of a A-frame. The shops are nearly always painted, and this paint is their defining characteristic.

“Where did you get the good avocados?” I ask my neighbor.

“The shop down the road. The Blue Tigo one- I think,” he tells me.

Tigo is a cellular carrier, and he wasn’t directing me to buy produce from a phone company. As anyone who has spent a day in Africa knows, many buildings act as square concrete billboards: companies paint the building for free, but require the addition of their logo and slogan, also painted. It works for both parties: the shop owner (or home owner, as it often happens) gets a free coat of paint to help protect his or her building from the elements, and the company gets a building-sized advertisement. And we come to describe the shops that way: Blue Tigo, next to Lime Green Tigo, next to Beige Kilimanjaro Cement next to (a different) Blue Primus Beer. Shops don’t often have large, blinking neon signs. Instead, they have signs where half the space is dedicated to the sponsor and the other half lists the name of the store. Again, a clever arrangement: the company gets an advertisement and the store owner gets a free sign.

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Shops across the street from my university brought to you by Primus

Dayo Olopade writes about apparent symbiosis in her book, The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, labeling this relationship, along with dozens more examples, as kanju: “a specific creativity born from African difficulty” (p. 20). Basically, kanju, Olopade’s one word thesis for the book, is how African systems evolve and adapt when “traditional” (aka common in Western countries) methods don’t work.

If painted buildings are one example of kanju at work, there are a thousand others to be noticed on a daily basis here. Houses here don’t have addresses, for example, and the systems which rely on a mailing address wouldn’t work- there’s no post service. If you need one, you get a post office box, and you check it regularly (or befriend the post master and convince him to text you whenever you have a package). Few people have PO boxes, so mailed bills don’t exist. Bills are paid up front: pay as you go.

There’s a box on the back of my house- it’s not a circuit breaker but the system for “topping up” power. When it gets low, down to one or two megawatts, I get a voucher code for cash power with 16 numbers to dial into the box. 2000 Rwandan francs buys two days of cold refrigerator, a working stove, and juice for computer and phone.

Phones work the same. I first experienced this in Europe, and have now come to the conclusion that Americans are the only people who don’t get to use the “I was out of credit!” excuse for not calling someone back. You put credit on again, via a voucher, or by giving money to a cellular rep who has a cell phone and sends a message to give you credit. Thus, Tigo, and its local competitors, MTN (whose name is splashed across the aforementioned yellow pinnies) and Airtel (who painted two entire blocks of Musanze town shops Airtel Red), are ubiquitous. On every corner in town and every other corner outside of it are small wooden tables shaded by wide colored umbrellas: company representatives who sell credit for calling and data use. Unlike the U.S., where one and two year contracts and free or discounted phones are the norm, everything here is done on spec. 200 francs will get you a handful of text messages or ten minutes of calling, and once the credit is gone, you are cut off until you load more. These corner representatives typically do more than just sell credit. Many of their stands are connected to a power source in a nearby building, and a heavily-burdened power strip charges ten or fifteen cheap “dumb” phones at a time, often for the nearby moto drivers who congregate and wait for someone who needs a lift.

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Shops foregrounded by volcanoes (L-R): Sabyinyo, Gahinga, and Muhabura

Prior to cellular networks, few people in Africa had phones. Landlines were hard to put in, especially in rural areas where cable would be strung across hundreds of miles. In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda’s western neighbor, the rugged terrain of jungle prevents roads from connecting the eastern and western sides. Phone lines? Out of the question. When cellular technology arrived on the continent, and slowly became affordable for the common man, it sparked a revolution. It’s like Africa skipped a step, going straight to cellular, but phones aren’t as much a luxury here as a requirement for life, love, and business. The price has dropped from the thousand-dollar brick phones of the 90s to cheap, almost disposable Made-in-China options that start at $5 and are nearly indestructible.

Most people have more than one- you can buy a basic phone for $5 and a SIM card with a phone number for $.50. The more important you are, the more phones are spread out in front of you at meetings.There is a cost to this access: Olopade reported that the average African spends 10% of their wages on phone access. But, as she notes, there is an “economic rationale” for this seeming extravagance: you NEED a phone. She cites research by Stefan Klonner and Patrick Nolan, who demonstrated that “phone coverage correlated to a 15 percent increase in employment- and women are the chief beneficiaries” (p. 99). Phone equals job.

Maybe the ownership of a phone isn’t necessarily kanju, but the way Africans use their phones demonstrates it. Phones here serve a dozen purposes. Back in February, I sent an email to a printing company in Kigali and asked them to send me 200 business cards based on an attached template. I sent the payment via mobile money services and my business cards arrived two days later, wrapped in brown paper and waiting for me at the Musanze bus station- sent via the bus courier service, the secondary service of bus companies who fill the void left by the lack of a postal service. They had come through my regular bus company, Virunga. Mobile money, the transferring funds between mobile customers using only the name and phone number, costs a pittance and allows a country nearly devoid of credit cards to avoid the hassle and possible concerns of passing around bags of cash. Your phone becomes your bank, and corner representatives are your tellers and wire transfer service, all in one- but for $.25 instead of $25.00.

Smartphones, in place of traditional computers, are allowing more access to the internet. Ericsson, the phone giant, recently did a continent-wide survey and found that 70% of internet users access with a smartphone, and only 6% via a traditional desktop computer. Rwandans, like many Africans, have taken to smartphones and the accompanying applications, like WhatsApp, which allow groups to share information easily using data connections instead of one text message at a time. My co-Fellow Renee, who until recently was stationed in Burundi, saw the collective function of WhatsApp groups: these groups can fill the gaps in media coverage. Before BBC was reporting on it, people were tossing around information from Bujumbura- a protest here, an attack by police there. I’m on a few Rwandan teacher WhatsApp groups, where teachers pass news from their schools and rumblings and gossip from the Ministry of Education. The phone then becomes the newspaper service, allowing individuals to transform into reporters.

These solutions demonstrate what Olopade drives home in her book: Africa might be different than the Western world, but don’t conflate difference with ineptitude. This continent is full of examples of what she calls “bold opportunism” – people “coming up with a different game” (p. 31). So, Africa runs on cellular. And banks on cellular. And you better make sure you always have credit on your phone.

Olopade, D. (2014). The bright continent: Breaking rules and making change in modern Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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