JOHANNESBURG (IPS)–The sudden growth of cell phones has outpaced any other new technology in Africa.

But a unique cell phone culture has evolved that combines necessity with traditional community values.

“Most cell phone owners in West Africa, for example, tend to serve as points of presence or communication nodes for their community. Other people pay them or simply borrow their phones to make calls to relatives or friends,” said Francis Nyamnjoh, a sociologist with the University of Botswana.


Mr. Nyamnjoh cites a study commissioned by the investment banking arm of Merrill Lynch that found Africa is an ideal market for telephones but demand had never been satisfied before cell phones because of the limitations of the older fixed-line phone system.

The Internet is a slow-starter in Africa because of the expense of home computers and dependency on erratic electricity supply and connectivity to the landline phone system. But cell phones are relatively inexpensive and require no waiting period to acquire.

“Traditional African culture with its emphasis on palaver and oral storytelling boosts phone use as a means of social and family contact. In contrast, you find a terse type of communication in the West, because people don’t like to ‘waste time’ on the phone,” said Connie Manuel, a business consultant in Maputo, Mozambique.

“Contrary to popular opinion, sociality, interdependence and conviviality are not always a liability to profitability,” said Mr. Nyamnjoh.

He said the impact of cell phones on African culture can be measured by the proliferation of the devices and how they are used. In Cameroon, for instance, only 87,000 landline users exist, with their number limited by the expense of stringing wires to remote areas. Cell phone users rose from zero when MTN-Cameroon cellular phone provider began its service to 200,000 users 18 months later. Swaziland’s cell phone users surpassed landline users within two years of the introduction of mobile phones.

The more loquacious a people tend to be, the greater the second measurement of cell phone impact: average revenue per user (ARPU). Nigeria has one-sixth of South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, but the average Nigerian cell phone owner uses his or her instrument five times more than his or her South African counterpart. The United States has 1,000 times Nigeria’s GDP per capita, but revenue earned from an average Nigerian cell phone is twice that of an American user.

For a country with a low level of economic activity relative to the developed world, Nigeria has a high level of minutes of use, according to the Merrill Lynch report. On a monthly basis in Nigeria, the average cell phone is used for 200 minutes per week, compared to 154 in France, 149 in Japan, 120 in Britain, and 88 in Germany, said the report.

“This could be explained by Nigerians receiving more calls than they make, and also by the reality of single-owner-multi-user communities,” said Mr. Nyamnjoh. “This suggests that the economic and social value of a cell phone in countries like Nigeria and Cameroon are very high.”

Penangnini Toure, a consultant in Mali with the UN Children’s Fund, said, “People give the number of a friend’s cell phone to other friends, and they leave messages with him. The friend becomes a communications center. This has led to entrepreneurship. People will invest in a cell phone, and they charge people to use it.”

The problem is Mali is not obtaining a cell phone, which can be purchased easily, but obtaining a cell phone number from the country’s single cellular service provider. UN consultant Toure has waited a year thus far to be issued a number. But individuals who become mobile phone boxes with their Nokia or Siemens units can be found literally from Cape Town to Cairo.

“There’s no doubt the cell phone has contributed to economic development and social contact,” said Teresa Atogiyire, senior editor at the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation. “You have people selling phone calls by the unit, which are about 300 to 600 shillings.”

One U.S. dollar is about 1,800 shillings.

More intriguing is the way clever entrepreneurs have handled the Ugandan hills that can cut off cell phones from transmission signals, rendering the instruments inoperative. The answer is “cell phone towers.”

“These guys, they build tall towers out of timber and stones on top of hills, and put a platform on top. Up there, you can pick up a cell phone signal. A user pays 600 shillings to climb a ladder and make a call. It’s much easier than taking a bus to a place which has a signal,” she said.

African nations differ, and Kagire Danson, publisher of Central African Media Agency in Kigali, said, “Rwandans are a very proud people. We don’t share. A cell phone is considered a status symbol.”

However, Mr. Danson admits he usually takes messages for family members and friends not yet connected to the cellular system.

“A person who is at a communications center becomes important,” said Sam Ndwandwe, a communications specialist in Swaziland. “That is why Swaziland’s 300 chiefs want government to give the chiefs’ runners cell phones, because the chief’s runner is traditionally the voice of the community and the chief’s conduit to the people. How can a chief’s runner not have a cell phone?”.