Speak up, you're through

On a hot Saturday afternoon, a group of people stand in a disorderly fashion in front of a pigeon-hole window with small pieces of paper in their hands.

Inside the window is a telephone booth and an operator who keeps dialling one number after the other and pushing the receiver through the window to the callers. Some have been waiting for more than half an hour, but they must wait a little longer for their turn to make a phone call.

Mildred Muwanei (52) is indifferent to the discussions going on around her.
She is number five in the disorganised queue. The mother of nine and grandmother of six in Kaoma district of western Zambia says making phone calls is a struggle for her.

Communication comes at a high price in her farming settlement—home to more than 10 000 peasant farmers—about 70km from Kaoma district town centre and 350km west of the Zambian capital, Lusaka.

“I have to wait; I can’t go home. This is the only place where I can make a phone call from. Otherwise, I might come later and find the person I am calling has switched off the phone, or this phone is not working,” she says.

“Sometimes when this phone is not working and there is an emergency, such as a funeral, we are forced to board a bus to Kaoma town [about 70km away] — we pay 60 000 kwacha [about R100] to go and make a call.”

Muwanei is one among thousands of Zambians benefiting from a pilot project implemented by a South African-based organisation, Connect Africa, seeking to promote communication services in areas that are often isolated from the national telecommunications grid.

By providing satellite-networked phones, Connect Africa is empowering marginalised rural communities with cheaper communication alternatives, which in the long run will enable poor communities to have a say in shaping policies to overcome their poverty.

Muwanei and other beneficiaries pay R3.20 a minute for a local call and double the amount for the same duration for an international call, but they reckon it is far better and cheaper than having to scribble a letter.

According to Enock Kamwaya (36), a peasant farmer in the area: “This amount is nothing compared to how we used to communicate in the past. We would write letters that would take over two months to be replied to, or we would not even receive a reply. But a phone call gives you an answer immediately so we don’t write letters now.

“We are benefiting from this programme. Now we can communicate with the outside world. As farmers we connect with different organisations such as World Vision, Oxfam, WWF to help us with fertiliser or markets for our produce. This plays a major role in our development; we wish every household could have a phone.”

Although cellular phone usage in Zambia has become the most popular and effective means of communication, analysts say the technology has been concentrated only in the cities and communities along the railway lines.

It is estimated that only about four million of Zambia’s 11.7-million population are able to use cellular phones as a means of communication, whereas much of the population in rural areas remains largely unserviced by the three commercial mobile-phone service providers.

Connect Africa phones use satellite antennas to locate signals and are powered by solar panels, thereby making it possible to be connected even in the remotest of areas where there are no mobile-phone signals.

Sub-chieftainess Mulendema, a traditional leader in Mubwa district, said: “We are very lucky to be using this phone. Our problems are now minimised. We used to climb the top of that mountain [about 6km] to make a phone call by tapping into the stray waves from Mumbwa town, about 50km away.

“It was a huge problem for women like me. Even then, we could only make local calls; this one is able to phone anywhere.”

At a time when the Zambian government is striving to improve infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, Mulendema represents the plight of thousands of Zambians who are living within a reachable radius from the highways, yet are too far away from communication services.

Mulendema’s chiefdom is located along the highway connecting Western Province to Lusaka, and both towns on her end—Mumbwa and Kaoma—are connected to the national telecommunications grid.

“Now we don’t just rely on the road. When we have a problem, we come here to phone cheaply and we ask our relatives for anything that we want. Life is better this way,” she said.

Yet, the demand for telecommunications facilities in the area has outstripped supply, resulting in villagers waiting to make phone calls.

According to Dean Mulozi, national coordinator for Connect Africa in Zambia, there are only six telephone handsets catering to an average of 4 000 people a phone.

“There is such a demand for the services. At first we used to load them with credit worth $50 a week, but that is used up in less than a day. So for some of them we have increased the amount to $135 a week.

“We want to expand the programme to cover the entire country and cater for all rural districts. All districts not connected [to the mobile phone grid] must be reached,” Mulozi said.

In commenting on the impact of the innovation on rural communities, Lotty Kakubo, a spokesperson of the Communications Authority of Zambia (CAZ), the country’s tele-communications regulatory body, said the institution would issue a comprehensive statement after only conducting a feasibility assessment of the installations.

But generally, “CAZ supports the efforts by other institutions to contribute to the extension of services in unserviced areas,” Kakubo said.

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