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AFRO-NETS> South Africa - Talking revolution

South Africa - Talking revolution

EASTERN CAPE, 16 May (IRIN) - As the sun slips behind the jagged 
hills of the Transkei, Chief David Lingazwe surveys the land his fam-
ily has farmed for hundreds of years. He smiles as he tucks a cell-
phone into the folds of the traditional blanket he wears to keep out 
the evening chill. 

The chief's daughter Bonizwe has just given birth at a government 
hospital in Bizana, 60 km away. A year ago, Vodacom, one of Africa's 
biggest mobile technology players, installed a mast and base station 
in Amambisi village, ending isolation, but also bringing hope to this 
impoverished community of 30,000. Before, the village, 50 km from the 
nearest road and often cut off by swollen rivers, would have waited 
days for the news of the birth.

Amambisi, with no electricity or running water in a province with 50 
percent unemployment seems an unlikely place for a mobile phone boom. 
But operators are taking the plunge in rural parts of South Africa 
and erecting network infrastructure in order to be a part of one of 
Africa's most important growth industries. "Things are changing round 
here quickly," Zwelibanjiwe Njomi, the principal of the local secon-
dary school told IRIN. "Before the mast it took half a day to get to 
town to make a call, now we're in touch with the whole world," he 

Mobile phone technology, once the preserve of a privileged few, is 
now touching the lives of millions of rural South Africans. Many of 
Africa's fixed line operators are cash-strapped state-owned companies 
that do not have the resources required to modernise their ageing 
systems. "In many cases mobile is taking the place of fixed line," 
Fernando Goncalves of Siemens, one of the continent's key infrastruc-
ture providers, told IRIN.

The African Telecommunications Union (ATU) expects mobiles to over-
take fixed phone lines in Africa within the next five years. In South 
Africa, mobiles already exceed fixed line phones. The ATU estimates 
that only about two percent of Africans have phones compared to a 
global average of about 10 percent. Africa has only 14 million phone 
lines, fewer than Manhattan or Tokyo. "It's a huge challenge, because 
of poor infrastructure and low incomes," said Mondi Mama of the Vo-
dacom Foundation, the development wing of Vodacom. "But we're suc-
ceeding against the odds in South Africa and it's a blueprint for the 
rest of the continent," he added. The company has business in Tanza-
nia and Lesotho and is eyeing the lucrative Nigerian market.

Vodacom's confidence comes from strategies they've pioneered in 
places like Amambisi. "We had to get over the problem of poor credit 
records and non-existent bank accounts and now prepaid accounts for 
nearly 80 percent of our business in South Africa," said Don Schorn, 
the regional Vodacom head in KwaZulu Natal. 

The prepaid scheme, besides making cellphone lines available to mil-
lions of low income subscribers, has also meant business opportuni-
ties in impoverished rural areas. Nokawe Tozana was a teacher in Jo-
hannesburg until she saw the potential of selling airtime to mobile 
phone users. "Those far from town need airtime, often they cannot 
travel to buy the cards, so I go to them," she explained. Equipped 
with a hand-held device that allows her to sell the airtime anywhere, 
she ventures into newly-networked parts of the country. "Business is 
good and I'm helping people keep in touch," she added as she loaded 
her newly-purchased car for a trip to the rural Northern Province.

The device was purchased through the South African Council of 
Churches' Sakhisizwe Trust. The trust distributed 15 machines last 
year and plans to distribute 500 machines to rural entrepreneurs and 
organisations this year. "This is a great opportunity for job crea-
tion and also to provide funds for churches and women's organisa-
tions," said Thembile Xipu, the director of Sakhisizwe Trust. To fi-
nance the US $400,000 cost of the airtime machines, the trust 
enlisted the help of a Philadelphia investment firm, Reinvest in 
South Africa. "It appealed to our concept of a double bottom line: to 
run a business while essentially empowering a community," said Sam 
Folin, managing director of the Reinvest in South Africa fund. Xipu 
added that the machines could be programmed to sell credit for elec-
tricity and water as well as cellphones, "effectively bringing bank-
ing to areas with no financial institutions".

Network providers in Africa are aware that their businesses can only 
grow if access to phones improves. The relative cost of a phone con-
nection in Africa's mostly low income countries remains many times 
higher than in Europe. The answer is more public phones. Private 
"phone shops" are springing up across the continent. Senegal has over 
7,000 "telecentres", employing over 10,000 people and generating 
nearly a third of all phone revenues. South Africa wants to improve 
public phone access to the point where everyone is within a 30 minute 
walk to a phone. 

The problem is resources, but the South African government has en-
shrined the principal of community phone access in its licence agree-
ment with the big operators. "Under our licence obligations we agreed 
with the South African government we'd put in 22,500 phones into ar-
eas where the phone density was less than one per hundred people," 
Schorn said. The phones are usually located in a container, where 
people pay less than half the cost of a mobile call. "We see this as 
an important development tool as well as growing the market," Schorn 

At the Amambisi phone shop a long early-morning queue snaked away 
from the container as the heavy steel doors were swung open for busi-
ness. "Having phones in our village at last is great, my son got a 
job because he could contact an employer," Mary, waiting to phone a 
relative in Durban, told IRIN. Another customer said that she had 
started a weaving business and the phone had helped put her in touch 
with buyers. "At last we feel part of the modern world," Chief Lin-
gazwe said.

Increasingly, greater access to communications networks is being 
viewed as a prerequisite to development rather than an outcome. "You 
simply cannot have growth without connectivity in our wired globe," 
Phillip Matundwe of ATU told IRIN. Vodacom's Don Schorn is positive 
about a connected continent. "Mobile phone technology must be the fu-
ture for Africa. After phones the next step is internet connections. 
Within a decade I believe every very rural African will have an e-
mail address, now that's an African Renaissance."

[This item is delivered in the "africa-english" service of the UN's 
IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect 
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