Cell Phones

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!

Credit and Cell Phone calls in Africa

The third in our series of Technology in Africa by our talented Anonymous blogger!


So now you have all the stats and many facts about cell phone companies in Burkina. Hopefully you’re not bored stiff, but just in case –  let’s move to a more ‘fun‘ aspect of cell phone (yes, I’m saying that sarcastically), the cost structure for the users.

Dollar Clip Art

I always say that I wish I had the same package in Canada as I have here.  In Canada, I need to either pay for a package with a contract, or pay a monthly fee without a contract.  Either way, I pay.  Regardless of my usage.

Frankly, a cheap monthly plan with a limited number of minutes per month between 9 and 5 is about as useful as a hole in the head to me.  It does not take many phone calls to go over the limit and bang, I have a lovely  bill at the end of the month.  On the other hand, having unlimited call and text is not perfect for my needs, which includes getting in touch with a child in another country.  And I am not constantly on my phone!

But here in Africa, I pay as I go.  I buy a recharge card for 5,000 FCFA, which is about 12$ Canadian, and it lasts me a month or a week, depending on my use.

But, all companies offer free credit bonuses! That means fairly regularly, all three main companies available here will offer a 100% free credit with any recharge.

Now, pay attention.  It does not mean that you have 10,000 FCFA worth of credit in your phone  to call whomever you want for 5000 FCFA.  Nope.  That would be paradise and too good to be true.  It means that you have the initial 5,000 FCFA credit to call whomever you want, and then another 5,000F CFA credit to call any, in my case, Telmob user. (Telmob is the company I use. Want a recap – check out my last post HERE)

So my credit last longer because every time I call another Telmob number, it is debited from my Telmob bonus.  Confused yet? It’s similar to the ‘MyFive’ plans in Canada

Lady, Talking, Phone, clip

For example,  right now, after having recharged my phone three weeks ago for 7,000 FCFA, I still have close to 3,000 FCFA of credit and over 5,400 FCFA of bonus credit (the bonuses can carry over between promotions.)  The bonus will expire on Sept 14, so it’s time to call my friends on Telmob to use it, or I will lose it.

Well, except that there is a slight problem.  I never know who is with Telmob.  You see, the beauty of having your friends saved in your contact list means that when you call, you don’t really check if the number is a Telmob or belongs to one of the other companies.  Once upon a time, when there were fewer numbers and cell phones in Africa, you could tell by the phone number’s first two digits.  But now, with the proliferation of numbers, you can no longer do so with certainty. Using the bonus credit can be hit or miss at times.

Bonuses and Two Phones

Last week, my Masseur was home (I have a very bad back these days and he works miracles!) and I asked him, as he emptied his pockets and prepared to work, why he had two phones. One wasyour basic phone, nothing fancy and the other one wasa smart phone, also known as the intelligent phone, a French translation for the English word ‘smart’.

In any event, in the last article I mentioned that many Burkinabè have two phones.  Well, my masseur explained that it is to take advantage of the bonuses offered by the companies.  This has been confirmed by friends since then.   I have seen this over and over, here and in Senegal where I lived before.  You go for lunch with friends and they have two phones on the table… weird!

Alternatively, people may own a phone with two sim cards, allowing you to have two numbers with different providers to take advantage of their bonuses.  Sometimes, one is the professional phone, and the other the personal one.

Not only do most Africans have cellphones – many of them have two!

How do you put more credit on your phone?

So, since pretty much every phone I have seen (and that is a great many) is essentially a ‘pay as you go,’  the issue becomes, how to make sure you don’t run out of credit?  Technically, you shouldn’t run out of credit if you’re proactive. It’s easy to check the state of your credit,  you just have to dial *101#. Which I admit I often forget to do.

If you run out of credit, the call will drop right then and there.   And I get a message on my screen, something about my credit not being sufficient for the call, or the sms I am trying to send.  Frustrating, but it is my own fault.  I would have just had the prescience to call *101# and bingo, I would know if it were time or not to recharge.

The company also is kind enough to let me know how much that phone call has just cost me after each call.  So, I can either work out the debit as I go… or call *101# to get my balance. Easier.  But credit no credit, I still can get calls because I don’t pay for receiving calls.  Just when I make them.  That was a welcome novelty for me!


Stay tuned for the conclusion of technology in Africa next week.

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.