Burkina Faso

The Future of Cell Phones in Africa

This week due to popular demand, we are returning to our discussion on Cell Phones in Africa. Or more specifically, the future of them.

Okay, Africans do use cell phones for phone calls- we’ve established that. But they use them way less then Canadians.  Why? Because calls cost a lot money.  Remember, there are very are few unlimited phone and text packages here,  and they are generally too expensive for the average Burkinabe.  So they text alot!

But what I found fascinating here – and blame it on the fact that I left Canada about five and a half years ago and I am totally disconnected – is the other use for cell phones.

Many locals use the phone as payment system.

Banking in Burkina

The penetration of the banking system in Burkina Faso is marginal compared Canada . The average Burkinabe does not have a bank account as the average Burkinabe does not work in the formal economic sector. Instead of banks, the cell phone is used to transfer money..  Burkinabe send money to their loves one while in the country – or while working abroad by using their cell phone.

Airtel is the most common used telephone company for transferring money.  Each small village I have been to, and I mean small, has an Airtel kiosk where the person who receives the money can go and get it.  All they need is the verification code and their National Identity card if they have one… but in villages, like small towns, everyone knows everyone so there is not a big problem with stolen identity!

The impact of this service on the population is, you can imagine, tremendous.  There is no longer a need to go to a Western Union, which are usually not found in the small villages and which requires identification documents that many people in these villages don’t have.

Another important benefit to paying with the cell phone is the ability to pay bills at distance, including school fees.  In Côte d’Ivoire, and in Burkina, parents are now able to pay their kids’ school fees by phone.  This means that the mother (normally…) does not have to walk to the school, wait in line for hours and then be subject to the administration for bribery… because of course, parents have to pay the administrator who register their children a little something to make sure that the kids gets registered to the school.

 

So there are many little ways in which the cell phones have changed the lives and culture of their users here.

Burkina Uprising

Like other places in the world, cell phones have also had geopolitical ramifications here as well.

On October 30 and 31st, 2014 the Burkina uprising happened.

Cell phones were instrumental in keeping the population abreast of what was going on and for the opposition to communicate with its members to tell them where the march was going and what to do – or not. The cell phones allowed people to post to social media –   and in spite of the government’s efforts to block internet, thanks for the use of cell phones, we all were apprised of what was going on.

In the end the internet, such as it is, was restored quickly!

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Internet in Africa

 When I talked to a friend of mine about writing a short piece on the internet in Burkina, she told me make sure to tell everyone that there is only one word to describe it… moan… And she works at the European Union offices… so I can only conclude that they are not, unlike the Canadian embassy here, connected to the satellite via a Canadian communication system.

I suppose I should find myself lucky we have internet at all, given how poor this country is and given how little technical infrastructure there exists… but ‘moan’ just the same!

According to OOKLA Net Index, Burkina consistently rates 196th on the household download index.

This comes from data analyzed between November 13th, 2014 and Feb 25th, 2015, using 5728 unique IP addresses for a total of 12,699 total tests.  It is fair to say that 196th place squarely places the country at the very bottom… well, I hear that Eritrea still has a dial up internet (I am dead serious), so maybe we are not quite the last… but pretty well down there.  These results made the front page of the local papers, no need to say.

There is ONE optic cable coming from Togo.  There is a new one that will be coming from Côte d’Ivoire… but for the time being, it is still in the planning… So ADSL is only available in ‘large’ cities like Ouaga and Bobo Dioulasso and only since 2011. And internet at home is mostly offered by ONATEL, the state telephone company.

Internet keys are available from Airtel (who else) and I hear Telmob.  They are rare to find and when available, they are snapped quickly by users… so, of course, they are always in short supply.  When we moved December 2013, I tried to find one until such time as I would be connected at home with ONATEL… to no avail.

Internet connections are, of course, not dedicated.

A dedicated connection for 128 kpbs without satellite connection is only offered by one provider from what I can understand – and it is 157$. If you dedicated that with satellite connection that cost jumps to 223$.

Yes there is G3+… if you can get it. My cell phone does not, and many of my friends express frustration because it is often down.

Given that many Burkinabé live in the country side or in areas without electricity, it will be no surprise to you to hear that the penetration of internet in this country in rather limited.  There are lots of internet café,s but few shops and restaurants that offer wi-fi.  Although to be fair, it is becoming increasingly available.   Internet literacy is also, evidently, very low.   Very.

The use of email address are dismal! Employees in private enterprise will still use their own personal email address to deal with clients on line (which is not frequent).

For government officers, , let’s just say that unless you get a younger officer with a smart phone and a personal computer he takes at work (and yes, I have seen that a lot!), you usually get no internet communication.

When I worked a few years ago (and it has not changed since) the older government officials I dealt with often had a computer on their desk, but it was not connected.  All it did was collect dust – and trust me, in this country, that expression takes a whole new dimension as dust is everywhere all the time. Burkina Faso is  located in the Sahel desert.

 These older officers all insisted that I contact them by phone.  But as their phone and/or the line was and is pretty bad, making conversation at times is nearly impossible.

Regular texting became part of my doing business.  But more often than not, I would simply go visit them at their office.  Reports, by the way, are often typed on a typewriter somewhere.

Internet connection regularly goes off … and I mean a few times a day.  I am reading the news and then, bang, I am offline and cannot get to the next article.  These outages are usually short.  They are frustrating but no big deal – unless you are downloading a program, then it means starting all over again.

But the internet connection regularly goes off for longer period of time.  The reason? It’s usually because some poor soul, not knowing what their  doing, is digging and hits that one cable, damages it, and then the whole town goes ‘MOAN’.

Sometimes these cuts are put back together with silver tape and you have a bit of a connection … but it is painfully slllloooooowwwww.

Some areas of town have an internet connection that work better than others.  Zone du Bois (center) works better when it works – but Ouaga 2000 (at the limit of the city) has a more consistent internet because it is closer to the location when the cable ends.

Of course, downloading a movie or an episode of your favourite show will take anywhere from 3 hours (194kb) to days.  I avoid HD files because it is almost impossible, and before you ask – Netflix is not available here.

For  this ‘high speed’ service (I am supposedly getting 512K, up from the 216 when I arrived in 2011) I pay 50,000 CFA, or $105.00.  So next time you complain about your internet service and/or cost, remember that it is way worse elsewhere in the world!

BUT… giving the low penetration of computers in private homes, I love to see the kids playing in the streets with the animals or with whatever they make toys of instead of being glued to their computer. I love to go to restaurant and see people talking to each other as opposed to texting and being glued to their cell phone, and yes, I do appreciate having the poor internet I have simply because I have internet and I can connect to my family and friends back in Canada,  even if my Skype connection is nearly impossible.

Living abroad has taught me so many things – but the one that is the most important is to appreciate and enjoy every little thing we have.  I know it sounds corny but, it is the truth.

Cell Phones in Africa Part 3

The conclusion to our series.


Talking about cost, here are some interesting stats about cell phones here.

A SMS, known as texto here, is cheaper than a call. That in turn has a different rate depending if I call a Telmob number, or that of another company.

Telmob charges me 10 FCFA for each SMS I sent to a Telmob number, 20 FCFA for a call to another company and 50 FCFA for international calls.

50 FCFA is 10 cents, I wonder if Bell can beat that?  A phone call will set me back 1.5 FCFA per second.  So 90 FCFA per minute for local calls is about 18 cents.  International calls are 150 FCFA per minute.  So I can call Canada for 10 minutes and it will cost me about 2.00$.  I get call display and voice mail for free.

Of course, all companies offer roaming at an astronomical cost.  To be honest, I used my sim card in Paris and nada, rien, zilch.  Could not get in touch with friends to tell them I had finally landed.  So had to buy a local sim card.  I am getting an interesting collection of them.  But there is one company that does it better than all of the cell companies I dealt with in my life – and that is quite a few.

Airtel. It’s the company we love to hate.

Well, their service may not always be the most reliable but they are the only one who has the infrastructure to support BlackBerry, the tablets, Android and others.  Their big advantage is that you can use your sim card no matter where you are in Africa as long as that country is served by Airtel.  No roaming charges.

For instance, this chap who helps me with these articles, Adama, calls his family in Burkina Faso while in business in South Africa using his local Airtel number with no need to add even the country code, 226.  And likewise, his wife in Burkina calls him in South Africa only dialling the 8 digits of his cell number, again, without the country code.  I tested this using my Congo Airtel number… and yes, it does work.  I can call any number in Burkina with my Congo number.  And, by the way, I have not put credits on my Airtel number in about a year, and my number still worked.

Lady, Talking, Phone, clip

 

In Canada, my number is suspended after six months if my phone is not recharged.  Given that I am in Canada one month out of every 12, it cost me a new sim card every time.  At the modest cost of $40.00.  Here, a sim card is $3.00.  The only drawback is that you have to queue to give the cell phone company tons of info on your little person.

Dollar Clip Art

Oh, I know, I hear you, it is a poor country and you cannot really expect people to pay Canadian fees.  OK, maybe.  But a cell phone is a cell phone, no?  It works on the same technology and apparently, the same infrastructure and thus similar cost of development.  I am sure I will get the eternal and predictable arguments about costs upfront to develop the infrastructure and what not.  I am still not convinced.  Companies here had and still have to develop the infrastructure and yet, the cost to the clients is way more reasonable, even when considering the local wages.

bfafrica

Let’s end on a funny note.  The recharge.  There are two ways to recharge your phone with credits.

Either you buy a recharge card for whatever amount you want from the kids who sell them at every street corner.  There are hundreds of them.  These cards work like an instant winning lottery ticket back home.  You scratch the thin cover and you get the private recharge code.  Enter it in your phone by calling a special number with special signs (#,*) and bingo, you won your recharge!

Or you can recharge using your local credit card.  Which I don’t have, so I rely on the charge cards.  But there is another way that I find absolutely hilarious.  The telephone guy.

So there are these guys (and yes, they are always always always guys!) who walk around with their phones and will transfer credit to your phone, using theirs and obviously, a special connection with your provider to do so.

You pay once you have received your credit, notice of which comes in the form of a texto!  You can also get anyone phone credits.  This is how many people in Ouaga recharge their family members’ phone back in the country side.  Because obviously, not everyone can afford the phone nor the recharge. Family members working in town often provide for their extended family back in the country side.

Instead of a wandering salesman, it’s a wandering phoneman!

From Africa’s Perspective: Burkina Faso

Could Africa be the next hub of technological innovation? After exploring the concept in our article Silicon Savannah, we decided to investigate further.

With that in mind, we are beginning a series today written by an anonymous guest blogger. Although she was born in Canada, she lives in Africa in a position of importance now, and has for several years.

Her blogs will all have ‘From Africa’s Perspective’ in the title.

Enjoy her unique and informative viewpoint!

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 Burkina Faso

I hear you from here… Burkina what?

Burkina Faso.  Capital Ouagadougou.  Come on, it is not that difficult to pronounce.  OUA-GA-DOU-GOU.  There, you got it.

Burkina Faso, the country of the honest man in Mossi, the local language.

A small country in West Africa.  Totally landlocked.  Surrounded by Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Bénin, Togo and Ghana.  Among the poorest countries on the planet.  Ranked 181 out of 187 countries on the 2014 United Nations Human Development Index.  Population 17 million.  Maybe.  In a country where traditionally mothers did not count their children until they reached the age of 5 given the high mortality rate, that number is at best an approximation.  What is known is that the birth rate is only second to Niger, with 6 children per woman.  Nearly 65% of the population is under the age of 24 years old.

The state of the infrastructure is sad.  Water purification plants are obsolete and almost non-existent outside the two largest cities, Ouaga and Bobo Diolasso.  Mind you, even in town, their state of order does not inspire confidence.  You would never, unless you have a Montezuma’s revenge wish, use that water to brush your teeth.

Ditto for the electrical grid, which is experiencing increasing stress thanks to the urban migration.  Power shortages are so common, be it during the rainy season or the hot season that nearly household has an generator.  If only not too loose the meat in the freezer, or getting the bedroom aircon working so that you have a restful night.  I am still amazed to see people at work, relatively productive, when the night temperature does not go below 30 degrees Celsius,  and you know that they do not have an aircon or fan because they cannot afford it.

Outside the main cities, the roads are not paved.  Mind you, they are not grated either.  There is no road equipment for that sort of work.  During and after the rainy season, which was quite generous this year, the state of the roads are impressive.  Not by their smoothness.  By the holes created by the traffic and the rain… well, ok, it is more like small pools, you are right.  Those who can afford it have 4×4.  Not for status, but for necessity.

Small cars get quickly damaged by the state of the road.  Even our 4×4 got damaged by these bumps and holes.  Believe me or not, we hit the bottom of the car and damaged something, not sure what.  Will finally be repaired this week, thank you very much.  That was quite a nasty bump. And no, we were not speeding.  Well, I don’t think that 20 km an hour is speeding.  Could be wrong -happened once before.

For 8 months on the year, the temperature varies between the low and high 30, even at 3 in the morning.  For two months, it varies between the low and high 40’s, hitting 50 in May.  Seriously.  The Mossi say that it is during the month of May that Burkinabè understand that they have a common border with Hell.

The cold season lasts two months or so, December to February.  Temperature can go down to 17 at 3 in the morning.  This is when people wear their winter coat, their toques and mittens.  Oh yes, it is cold on that motorcycle in the morning.  Because motorcycles and bicycles are the most common mode of transportation for the majority of the population.  There are enough cars to make driving a hell raising experience.  Fighting for your place on the road with decrepit taxis and trucks and a large number of 4×4, with motos and bikes zigzagging among the traffic…yes, you do live the African experience.

I still have not determined if I prefer the hot season, without sand, or the cold season with its Harmattan winds, coming from the Sahel and bringing with it heaps of dirty sand and dust.    In a part of the world where toilets are not common, the desert and the countryside are often the public latrine.  The Harmattan brings its lots of disease.  The most deadly is the meningitis, the second killer in young children, after malaria.

There is literally no garbage management of any sort.  Yes, garbage is being picked up … and dumped somewhere.  Mind you, recycling is heavy.  There is someone going through your garbage to recuperate what can be of use.  Plastic bags are everywhere.   I keep joking about the plastic bags trees as the plastic bags often get caught in tree branches.  Not funny, I know.

Life expectancy at birth is 56.34 years.  Literacy rate is 28%; much lower in women.   School attendance at high school is 26%, mostly boys as girls need to help in the house.  The quality of education is poor.  The average class size is 48.  Larger in the country side.  81.1% of the population life below 2$ a day; 44.6% below 1.24$.

Burkina has been my country of temporary residence for the past three years.  And is spite of these statistics and these facts, and many others, what impresses is the resilience of its people.  Système D as we say in French, Système Débrouille.  Vaguely translated as System Make it Work.  And their use of technology.

I was asked if I would be willing to write a few articles on the state of technology in Burkina Faso.  I thought it could be interesting.  These will be based on my observations, my discussions with friends and people who know the area and are generous enough of their time to help me.  It is by no means a serious analysis on the state of technology in the country and the region.

I don’t understand technology like those of you who will be reading these articles.  But I will do my best to make them interesting and relevant… and they will be even more so if you help me identify subjects of interest…

The first couple of articles will focus on internet and telephone, both land lines and cell phones.  Miracles are being worked here every day with the use of cell phones…

See you soon…