February 23, 2010 / 3:05 PM / 9 years ago

China-fuelled phone boom reaches Darfur's camps

ABU SHOUK CAMP, Sudan (Reuters Life!) - Scores of Chinese-made phone charger cables snake across Abubakr Ali’s Darfur market stall, one of the furthest outposts of a telecoms market that is booming in the face of a seven-year conflict.

Mohammed Abakar Mohammed mends a Chinese mobile phone at his stall in Abu Shouk Camp in Darfur February 11, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Heavens

Sudan, like most African countries, has seen a massive expansion in its telecoms industry in recent years, focused on its main towns and cities.

Now, a combination of cheap Chinese imports and demand from an influx international peacekeepers, itinerant businessmen and aid workers has pushed the market on into a much wilder area, Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur.

The country’s main mobile operators — Zain of Kuwait, MTN of South Africa and Sudanese Sudani — are leading the charge, upgrading their networks to keep up with rising demand.

But a collection of more obscure brand names is behind the move into some of Darfur’s poorest corners, the refugee camps where more than 2 million people have taken shelter from the violence.

“Mobile phones used to be too expensive for many of us. Then the Chinese handsets started arriving,” said Mohammed Abakar Mohammed, owner of one of a row of phone stalls in Abu Shouk camp, a dusty grid of mud-walled shacks on the outskirts of North Darfur’s capital El Fasher.

“The network is good. Zain works in all the areas covered by the government. Sudani covers all the areas, even the rebel ones.”

In Abu Shouk, most people want a Nokia but settle for lesser known names — Sunys (pirated knock-offs of cutting edge Sony Ericssons), the dual SIM card Youshi or, most widespread of all, the snappily titled G’Five Gompolla T33+.

The cheapest versions of those will set you back just over 100 Sudanese pounds ($45). The most expensive, with camera and MP3 player cost around 250 Sudanese pounds. If that is too much, many stalls offer a trade-in scheme, a newish Gompolla in exchange for an older model and a small payment.

Food rations on the camp have been cut and residents live without most basic services. But for many, getting a mobile phone still counts as a priority.

“We want them for the same reason everyone else wants them. I talk to my friends. I can phone home when I’m late in class,” says student Mohamed Abdul Karim, who said his family fled attacks by government-backed militias on their home town of Tawila in 2003.

“Everyone wants the best phone. When you see your brother or your colleague has a new phone, you change ... People do have money here. They bake bread. They make bricks.”

Innovative camp residents have also been finding ways to make their own money from the mobile boom. The very cheapness and fragility of the handsets has created a strong sideline in repairs.

While Mohammed Abakar Mohammed is talking, a customer walks up and shows him the screen popped out of his handset. A quick twist with his screwdriver and a push with his thumb and everything is back in place. “There are plenty of spare parts,” he says, rummaging through a pile of worn plastic casings.

Another apparent limitation that has turned into a business opportunity is the lack of a reliable electricity supply.

Abubakr Ali’s entire stall is given over to rows of phone chargers, plugged into sockets nailed onto long wooden planks. A white power line leads to a small petrol generator round the back.

Ali licks the end of each charger to find one with a decent connection before plugging it in to a customer’s phone. A full charge costs one Sudanese pound ($0.45).

It is a pattern that Erik Hersman, of African technology website AfriGadget (www.afrigadget.com), has seen rolled out across power-starved rural Liberia and other remote parts of the continent.

“As long as mobile phone operators are willing to go into these areas, these kinds of activities spring up around them ... People in harsh areas also want/need to communicate. That’s the base level driver in this whole mobile space. It overcomes inefficiencies.”

It also creates job opportunities. Mohammed Abakar Mohammed was a fieldworker for a foreign aid group before he switched to mobile phones, attracted by the safer life in camp and the challenge of learning about new technologies.

Four years ago, Zachariah Karku was a Lieutenant Colonel in Darfur’s rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), working as a military observer in the African Union peacekeeping base in El Fasher.

Nokia phone charger cables snake across Abubakr Ali's (C) market stall in Abu Shouk Camp in Darfur February 11, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Heavens

Then in 2006, his SLA faction signed a peace deal with the government and he moved outside the main gate of the camp to set up a mobile phone stall. “We were supposed to be integrated into the Sudanese army, but that never happened. Now I do this.”

He sells a flashier line of phones to the peacekeepers and international visitors, an apparently genuine boxed Nokia N95 for $570, some suspicious-looking Blackberrys from a supplier in Dubai and a couple of familiar ‘Sunys’.

Karku’s business peaked in 2008 and 2009, when the UNAMID peacekeeping force was building up its numbers with thousands of new African troops. Things have slowed a little in recent months. “A lot of the new arrivals are from Asian countries. They already have their phones with them when they arrive.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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