I always tell people that the Tanzanian villages where Karimu works are “remote.” Yet as I look more into cellphone use in Africa in order to learn about mobile banking, I wonder whether I have a right to call Bacho and Dareda remote. As with every other place we have visited in Tanzania and Rwanda, one can easily make and receive cellphone calls in both villages. This has always impressed us because, back in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California, it frustrated us for years that we couldn’t reach our teenagers’ cellphones three miles away in the next town. In fact we still can’t call the next town, although we don’t have teenagers anymore and so don’t worry about it. But in Africa, I think, we have still not seen a cellphone call fail.
Then again, where have we gone in Africa? We’ve spent five days in Rwanda, easily covered by cellphone networks because of its small size and also led by Africa’s most technologically ambitious President, Paul Kagame. We’ve spent nine days on safari, where the constant presence of muzungus—white people—necessitates a higher level of services. We have also spent a total of about a month in Bacho and Dareda.
Both villages seem remote because of the ordeal of travel on the Singida Road, which passes straight through Dareda and misses Bacho by a few kilometers. The Singida Road is littered with frustrated vehicles and their forlorn passengers. Flat tires occur regularly: I’ve made only a handful of trips up and down the road, yet on my very first trip I had the chance to help change a bus tire. (That brought mixed results for Marianne and me, by the way. On one hand, it broke the ice with a very reserved interpreter from whose silence we had started to plan an escape, but who ended up doing an excellent job for us. On the other hand, we developed so strong a liking for this young man, whose name was Dezzy, that the following year we gave him two thousand dollars to pay for his last year of college; nobody we know has any idea what happened to Dezzy, except that wherever he went it wasn’t college and that, along the way, he drank most of our two thousand dollars.) The vehicles marooned in the Singida Road’s mammoth potholes—craters, really—make an even more sad picture than the ones with flat tires. Some day I hope to have the leisure to wait around and see the rescue of a bus or freight truck from one of those craters since I can’t imagine how one would do it. Would it take a backhoe to level the ground all along the perimeter of the crater, or maybe a towering crane like the ones used to unload cargo ships or to help put up tall buildings in great cities? Or perhaps a battalion of determined laborers to disassemble the bus or truck inside the offending crater and then reassemble it on the—relatively—level ground next to it?
The craters pose their biggest threat once daylight has fled, although one can say that about the Singida Road generally. Not all Tanzanian drivers can afford to keep their headlights in working order, for one thing. And because of the absence of tarmac, which permits a seamless blend of the colorless road with the colorless adjacent fields wherever there is no vegetation, nighttime drivers on the Singida Road must expect periodic adventures in off-roading. Last summer the four-by-four carrying Marianne and me and our son Peter and a few of Karimu’s other volunteers did a little off-roading at dusk. Our driver, unable to see the bend in the road, took us into a barren field, onto ground even less flat than the road’s, and took me closer than I’ve ever been to flipping over in a vehicle. Some of us found just enough time to try another possible means of rescuing vehicles betrayed by the Singida Road: prayer.
So the Singida Road is bad, but that doesn’t make it remote. In fact, Tanzania’s government judges the road important enough to warrant bitumen paving, financed by the African Development Bank and scheduled for completion early in 2013. The government agreed to begin paving the road long before a pair of bus accidents occurring barely two weeks apart last summer killed thirty-eight people. The Singida Road takes large numbers of travelers, so cellphone towers will accompany it wherever it goes.
But cellphone service providers would have no reason to build networks covering places far from main roads or major urban centers, which might feature even lower population density and lower per-capita income than the places Marianne and I have seen. And why would a cellphone service provider looking to make a profit erect towers on steep slopes or at high elevation?
A Swedish telecommunications research company called Berg Insight counted fifty-five million mobile banking users around the world in 2009. This suggests that Africa alone holds several hundred million potential mobile banking customers. Mobile banking requires a cellphone, though, and we should remain cautious about predicting the universal spread of cellphones across the continent because of the cost to users as well as to service providers. Consider that in Niger, a one-minute out-of-network call costs thirty-eight U.S. cents, or forty percent of a household’s daily income.
Africa’s four hundred million cellphone subscriptions don’t clearly indicate numbers of cellphone users since many individuals—perhaps most—hold multiple subscriptions. An African cellphone user will often have several different prepaid accounts and sim cards. Typically, calling somebody who has more money than you do involves sending a “missed call” by ringing twice, then hanging up. The person at the other end checks which network the missed call came over and inserts the appropriate sim card for the call-back, making it as cheap as possible.
So even though cost-driven cellphone sharing is common in Africa, maybe half a billion or more Africans do not yet use cellphones. Maybe the correlation between cellphone use and relative prosperity explains the strikingly contradictory form of unsociableness practiced by cellphone users. In Tanzania and Rwanda and, I hear, most places in Africa, inclusion rather than exclusion is the rule in social life. People who know each other seem never to tire of spending time together and people seem always to want to get to know more people. Last year a number of our Karimu volunteers were shocked when, as they walked past a wedding party in Dareda, a much bigger village than Bacho and one where we have spent far less time, they received an invitation from these complete strangers to sit as honored guests at the same table as the bride and groom. But a Tanzanian or a Rwandan who receives a cellphone call instantly withdraws into a world in which only the two parties on opposite ends of the call exist and in which shutting everyone else out of that world justifies speaking at the top of one’s voice—even at the dinner table.
The loudest cellphone user Marianne and I have heard at any dinner table was an exceptionally gracious and generous Rwandan army colonel named Celestine. He had much to be proud of, including beautiful young children and a smart, pretty wife named Angelique. (Rwanda is historically Francophone although its government has adopted a policy of forming stronger relations with English-speaking countries.) Celestine also took great pride in his little country and its astonishing rise from the ashes of the 1994 genocide, expressing firm confidence in the Kagame government’s plan to transform Rwanda into a center of information technology, a sort of African India, and thereby raise it to First World status within a decade. The odds look awfully long to me, but Rwanda is tiny and densely populated, so connecting all its people to each other electronically can be achieved much more easily than in a nation like Tanzania, which is neither tiny nor densely populated.
Celestine’s military duties, if I understood him correctly, involved not soldiering in the traditional sense but, instead, mobilizing the Rwandan population for acceptance of President Kagame’s technological master-plan. He took pride in the role the Kagame government had given him in implementing its plan and in what his patriotic work had brought his family: two cars including a Mercedes-Benz, a middle-class home wired for Internet access, and the prospect of still higher destinations in the army. Celestine talked louder on his cellphone at the dinner table than any other Rwandan or Tanzanian I’ve met in roughly the same measure that he and Angelique seemed better off than anybody else. So maybe the link between cellphone possession and wealth, hence status, explains this habit of noisy announcement of one’s cellphone use to the temporary detriment of the Africans’ famous sociableness.
Anyway, I can point out a clearer result of the correlation in Africa between prosperity and cellphone use. Up to now, mobile banking has done more to create alternatives for people who already have bank accounts than to give people a chance to open a bank account for the first time. Thus, so far most Kenyan users of M-PESA mobile banking have belonged to wealthier, better educated, urban, and already banked segments of the population. Two years ago only thirty percent of M-PESA users were previously unbanked, more or less the typical pattern for mobile banking services in other developing countries.
As of May 2009, M-PESA had not yet turned a profit, but since then its revenues have grown one hundred fifty-eight percent over the previous year’s and it is now highly profitable. More determined efforts to reach unbanked people living in remote areas probably would have made it harder for M-PESA to end up in the black. The heavy cost of investing in mobile banking infrastructure in remote areas confers great importance on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s pledge of thirty-eight million dollars in grants to microfinance institutions moving into mobile banking.
Most Africans send money expensively (by post), more expensively and with high risk of theft (with friends or relatives by bus), or still more expensively (by Western Union). Although transferring money by cellphone is much cheaper, entry into mobile banking by microfinance institutions can introduce the crucial benefits of traditional banking: interest on savings, insured accounts, the chance to build a credit history. In Nigeria, for example, only twenty-five percent of the money in circulation passes through the banking system.
Western Union, fearful of losing business to mobile remittance companies, continues to form partnerships with, and to seek the expertise of, mobile operators like Kuwait-based Zain and South Africa-based Fundamo, both of which operate in Africa. The innovative mobile authentication solutions and payment provider Tagattitude of France maintains a subsidiary in Lagos, Tagattitude Nigeria, whose CEO, Femi Akinware, claims industry leadership for his company. Its mobile banking platform—which, uniquely, works on any phone on any network, without hardware or software modification of the phone—was recently demonstrated for microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus.
It’s not everybody’s dream of Africa, of course, this Africa of postmodern cellphones where a national leader like Paul Kagame dares to compete for technological supremacy. The promise to tarmac the Singida Road, which has awakened so many hopes in Bacho and Dareda, represents one step toward a new Africa. However, the promise of a different road, far north of Singida but still in Tanzania, illustrates much more dramatically how different dreams of Africa can smash into one another. Tanzania’s government plans a commercial road straight through the northern Serengeti wilderness, cutting in two the path of the breathtaking annual “Great Migration” of two million wildebeests and zebras and blocking access to their only reliable water source during the dry season. Students of the migration warn of declines of at least eighty percent in the herds’ populations and of the spread of invasive plant species harmful to the area’s biodiversity.
On June 15 the evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson suggested in her weekly blog that “this road. . . is not a case of animals versus people” since an “alternative. . . road to the south of the park. . . would connect five times more people, and cost less to build” (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/15/road-kill-in-the-serengeti/). All true, but the Frankfurt Zoological Society—opposed to the road like Judson and also favoring the southern route—concedes that if one looks “only at the map, the proposed road through northern Serengeti seems to make sense, as it is the shortest line between existing population centers surrounding Serengeti” and with “trade growth rates rising immensely in Africa, transport will significantly increase within the next few years” (http://www.zgf.de/?id=72&reportId=85&language=en). So it may be the case that Tanzania’s government sees the northern and southern routes not as alternatives to each other, but as equally live possibilities. The people at either end of the northern route want to reach one another as quickly as possible and the southern route won’t accomplish that. Ramming a highway through the northern Serengeti does not rule out a road for the much larger population to the south; they might simply have to wait a little while for their road.
If so, Judson would be wrong to deny “a case of animals versus people.” Building the road that destroyed the Great Migration would entail a familiar kind of tradeoff. And it would deal a shattering blow to those who dream that economic development in Africa will not repeat the types of choices made, and increasingly regretted, in other parts of the world.–Don Stoll