Cell Phones in Africa

The second in our series of Technology in Africa by our Anonymous blogger!


My favourite subject so far.  At least one I can understand.  Somewhat.

I am everyday absolutely AMAZED at the cell phone use in this country, and in West Africa in general.  OK, I derived my comment about West Africa from my two years in Senegal and my three years in Burkina but frankly, I have no information to believe that it is different in the other countries in West Africa.  Quite the contrary.

Let’s start with basic information.  In Burkina, there are three main cell phone providers: Telmob, which is the cell phone leg of the only land line telephone company, Onatel.

Once a government owned shop, it was privatised about five years ago and bought by Maroc Telecom.  They bought the company and the infrastructure.  We’ll get back to that point at a later date.  Disclosure: I am a Telmob client.  It works just fine.  Nothing exotic, but very fine.  Some dropped calls, some SMS don’t reach their destination and I don`t receive some, but overall, decent enough. Telmob has the largest market share with 41.3%.

Then comes Airtel, the company everyone loves to hate.

Well, OK, the company I love to hate… and my many friends here who use it.  It was founded by Sunil Bharti Mittal, an Indian businessman.  It has 39.64% of the market share in Burkina.  Outside India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Airtel is present in 17 West and Central African countries and in the Seychelles (not sure where to put them… Southern Africa? East Africa? South-East Africa? It’s there in the Pacific Ocean, barely an African country).

Finally the last and only Burkinabè company is Telecel.

It is privately owned.  Internal wars resulted in a steadily decreasing market share over the past few years, and it now stands at 19.05% of the market share.  I really cannot comment on the quality of their service as I don’t know anyone who uses it.  But from all accounts, it ain’t the greatest.

A fourth license is being negotiated by Orange, the French multinational telecommunication company.  To be fair, Orange is already present in many African countries.  It was one of the most important companies in Senegal when I lived there.  The interesting element here is that Orange is also negotiating the use of the fiber optic wiring.

Now, some fascinating, at least from my perspective, statistics.  As of December 2013, cell phone penetration was at 65% for the country as a whole.  Obviously, it is higher in the cities than in the country side.  But more fascinating yet is that between 2008 and 2013 what is referred to here as the cell phone density increased from 21.57% to 64,89%.  Not bad for a country that is dirt poor.

This means that there are over 11 million phone numbers in action in a country of 17 million people.  I jokingly said to this chap who is helping me find my way through information to write these articles that only those below 5 years of age don’t have a cell phone.  He looked at me seriously and said, yes, just about.  He was also joking.

In fact, the truth is that many Burkinabès have two cell phones.  Or one cell that takes two cards.  We’ll get back to that.

Airtel is the company that sees its part of the market increasing the fastest.  Indeed, in 2012 the Airtel card was the most sought after.  The other interesting fact is that the government requires that all cell phone companies operating on its territory increase cell phone density every year.  And they do follow with each company to ensure that this requirement is respected.

In a country as poor as Burkina where the installation of a land line can take up to 6 months, unless you are willing to do what is needed to speed up the process (read bribe), it is no wonder that cell phones are selling like hot cakes.  Cell phones are not expensive either.

Cell phone kiosks, or shacks, are a dime a dozen.  Add to this a large number of street vendors that will assault you when you walk out of a store or restaurant to sell you a cell phone.  And honestly, these cell phones, aside from the ‘chinoiserie’, a French play on word referring to products made in China but that have little quality, are decent and solid.  A bona fide Nokia cell phone, really basic (call and text) will cost you about 15,000FCFA or about $31.50 Canadian dollars.  On the other hand, you can get a BlackBerry for less than 50$.

But it is a ‘chinoiserie’ and as my grand-mother used to say, you get what you pay for.  My poor friend Lydia saw her ‘BlackBerry’ die on her less than 24 hours after she bought it.  Evidently, there is no use going back to the kiosk where she bought it to exchange it.  Guarantees do not exist here for most goods bought in stores or in the streets, or are not respected.  Unless you buy at the brand name store.  Then you are covered. Sometimes.  Not always.

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