Cellphones bring a :-) to remotest Africa
Namibia's plucky fix-it industry handles all manner of disaster: Melted phone? No problem. Dead battery? Jump start it with a car.
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On the flatbed sits an aluminum-sided shack, identified by a hand-painted sign: Okau Cell Part & Repair Shop. Inside you'll see a generator, a car battery, a smattering of dusty pink phone jackets, and a dozen different chargers hanging like sausage in a butcher shop. This is where Jack Nendongo works his magic.
"I do all repairs," he says, watching three women in traditional Himba tribal garb – thick beaded necklaces over bare breasts and animal-skin skirts – walk by. "People here, they must have their cellphones."
He doesn't just fix phones, he explains. For less than a dollar he charges them – a much needed service in a region where more villages have cellphones than electricity.
Over the past decade, the number of cellphone users in Africa has grown faster than anywhere else in the world. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles unit, the continent's cellphone usage has increased about 65 percent annually for the past five years – from about 63 million users in 2004 to 152 million in 2006.
And the way people use and care for their mobile phones is different than in the wealthy, BlackBerry-addicted West. Here, people send text messages to friends, but also use their cells to do banking and organize political rallies. In areas with no TV, farmers use phones to get agricultural news and weather reports. (The Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange, for instance, sends text messages with up-to-date market prices.) In townships, entrepreneurs will set up cellphone booths, where passers-by can use airtime for a slightly inflated price.
In all these ways, says Panday, cellphones have increased networking among Africans and have lessened the global "digital divide" between haves and have nots.
"Young people today, more than any generation, have digital savvy," she says. "They all have access to SMS [short message service] and cellphones."
Africa has its own cell etiquette. Here, people tend to buy airtime as they go – cell contracts similar to the ones people use in the US tend to require a higher monthly income than the majority earn – and there is much maneuvering to save "units." Most Namibians, for instance, touch base with one another by inexpensive SMS.