A Ringing Revolution

Pre-paid mobile tariffs are a force for democratisation.

Strive Masiyiwa is an entrepreneur on a mission. As earnest as his own first name, Masiyiwa, 42, wants to make the mobile telephone a communications tool for Africa’s masses – as cheap and basic as the hand-cranked party line was for Americans early in the last century. “Yes, you can make a lot of money out of 10,000 very rich members of your society,” says Masiyiwa, whose company, Econet, serves mobile-phone customers in six African nations, including his native Zimbabwe. “But you can have packages that bring down the cost and put mobile phones within the reach of ordinary men and women.”

A rich man’s toy for most of the past decade, mobile phones are now transforming Africa, helping the continent to leapfrog one of the obstacles to its development. All of sub-Saharan Africa has fewer fixed telephone lines than Manhattan alone. That lack of infrastructure inhibits foreign investment and economic growth. Mobile-phone service is spreading because of fierce competition among multinational providers like Econet. And the introduction of cheap, prepaid calling plans has made mobile phones accessible to low-income Africans. Incredibly for a continent where half the people survive on less than $2 a day, African mobile-phone users now spend more time – and more money – on calls than their counterparts in Europe. In Botswana, more than one person in eight has a mobile phone. In South Africa there are more than 8 million mobiles, compared with just 5 million conventional lines. In chronically war-torn Somalia, mobile phones are popular because they don’t depend on overhead wires that are vulnerable to looters hunting for copper.

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