Telecoms boom leaves rural Africa behind

Thu Jan 31, 2013 7:35am EST
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By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura and Simon Akam

JOHANNESBURG/FREETOWN (Reuters) - While mobile phone usage has exploded across Africa over the last decade, transforming daily life and commerce for millions, it's a revolution that has left behind perhaps two thirds of its people.

Poor or no reception outside the towns helps explain why the continent's mobile penetration, in terms of the percentage of the population using the service, is far lower than previously thought, and the cost of providing that service to impoverished, sparsely populated areas remains prohibitive.

In rural Sierra Leone, a country where GDP per capita is less than $400 a year, money doesn't grow on trees, but mobile reception can, says street trader Abass Bangura in Freetown, the West African country's capital.

In parts of Tonkolili, a district in the center of the country, or Kailahun to the east, it's the only way you can get reception, he said.

"You climb stick, like mango tree, before you have network," he said.

In South Sudan, the world's newest state, it's a similar story. Less than a year old, the country already has five mobile operators, and its capital, Juba, is teeming with giant billboards advertising mobile phones, but go just a few kilometers beyond a handful of fast-growing towns, and cell phones become useless.

Multiple SIM cards help users navigate patchy network coverage and take advantage of price promotions from rival operators.

That is typical of much of the continent.   Continued...

A man makes a call on a mobile phone in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown December 13, 2012. REUTERS/Simon Akam