Out of Africa: the next big thing is phone charging

In the streets of every electricity-starved African city, the new meeting place is the local phone charger--the man with an outlet who can rejuvenate your mobile phone â''Ã'¶ for a price.

More mobile phones are getting charged in Africa than ever. In recent years, phone usage has exploded. Today nearly one in five people own a phone, from nearly nothing 10 years ago. The World Bank, which supplies these statistics, calls Africa's mobile phone market, "the fastest growing" in the world.

The spread of mobile telephony is one of the great development success stories, one largely driven by private investment now totaling in the billions of dollars. The only trouble is that supplies of electricity haven't grown nearly as fast as dial tones.

Some of the world's leading telecom companies are trying to address Africa's electricity gap through clever innovations. Motorola tested both solar-powered and wind-power cell-phone base stations in sunny Namibia, in southwestern Africa in 2007.

The idea is that rural Africans, about half of whom live off the grid with no hope of getting connected anytime soon, at least will be able to make a phone call. In African cities, mobil-telephony service is excellent, but frequent electricity outages leave people--rich and poor-- scrambling to charge their phone batteries.

Enter Wasswa Abbey, owner of a dusty storefront in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Abbey runs recreation and after-school programs for children in his neighborhood. On the side he's begun to charge mobile phones for people who don't get electricity delivered to their homes. "This is a slum," he says of his neighborhood. "Many people don't have a place to charge their phones."

A complete charge costs about 30 cents, about the price of a one-minute phone call.

When I met Wasswa at his shop, he was charging five phones, a good day for him, he says. For his customers, trust is key. He is well known in his neighborhood for his community work. "Customers trust me not to use their phones while charging," he says.

Up the street, on a second meeting, Wasswa, took me on a walk of his neighborhood. We passed a few other shops offering charging and then we came upon a construction site: a new cell tower rising up a mere 100 yards from his shop.

Yet there are new electricity sources coming into the neighborhood, which highlights one difference between the new technology of wireless telephony and the older system of electricity transmission. Mobile phone calls are managed by digital computers and theft of calling time is virtually impossible. Customers buy prepaid cards and then run down their "units" like clockwork. By contrast, electricity is carried over wires. The juice can be stolen; so can the equipment. In poor neighborhoods, many customers don't pay their electricity bills. Prep-paid services are only beginning, and they require smarter, more expensive meters, which themselves are targets for thieves.

Investment in mobile phone services rises, while investment in electricity stagnates.

And another customers drops off a phone for Wasswa to charge.


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