Africa is becoming a test lab for mobile phone development

Lessons in innovation that Vodafone learns from its work in sub-Saharan Africa will be applied to its projects around the world.

Gautam Singh/AP
In this 2007 file photo, an Indian worker carries a Vodafone sign to erect it on a street lamp post in Mumbai, India.

In my course on technology, development and Africa, a fine undergraduate student, David Metoyer, wrote this about the activities in Africa of Vodaphone, one of the world’s most significant mobil-telephony companies and a sizeable force in the sub-Saharan mobil boom:

Since 2009, Vodafone has significantly increased its presence in Africa. Vodacom, Vodafone’s leading subsidiary, hired 4,082 additional employees in Africa, bringing the total to 6,833 (a 150 percent gain). As a whole, Vodafone employment in Ghana increased from 13,676 in 2009 to 21,064 in 2010. Vodafone’s Seek, Identify, and Support (SIS) program enables the company to quickly identify new opportunities in the African market. The SIS program allows employees to propose potential projects that will benefit the company, and local communities. Often times, the communities are the employees’ home villages.

For Vodafone, sub-Saharan Africa is proving to be the testbed for R&D development that will transition to the rest of the world. Vodafone’s emerging “Africanized” technology is highly advanced, world-class stuff; unlike other existing technologies that have slowly trickled down into African markets.

Some examples: At first, Vodafone and its network of subsidiaries in sub-Saharan Africa tapped into the existing electrical grid. But the newly represented company was soon bombarded with complains from customers over spotty coverage and service outages. The problem was identified immediately. Some countries, specifically Kenya and the DRC, had very weak supporting infrastructures. As a result, the overburdened electrical grids dropped power to cell towers, regularly cutting service from paying subscribers until power loads reduced to sustainable levels. The outages could have lasted for hours. To remedy the issue, Vodafone fitted cell towers with gasoline backup generators.

For the past decade, the company’s critical challenge has been providing cellular coverage to places that lack even the most basic services, such as running water and electricity. Running power to rural cell towers was expensive and cable theft was rampant. To reach the rural customer, Vodafone planted generator-supported towers throughout the African countryside. The new tower sites reduced grid dependency, but also increased operational costs to ensure the reliability.

Around 2009, the concerns over energy security were also met with concerns over environmental degradation, or dramatically changing climates. Gasoline prices increased and soon Vodafone faced rapidly increasing costs to support reliability to its least paying customers, rural villagers. Additionally, Vodafone was under fire for excessive CO2 emissions from the gasoline generators powering those rural towers.

Vodafone was forced to “design for real needs”. Hybrid green sites have emerged as the solution. The project was taken on internally by the Cost Reduction team; the “Green Technology Program” aims to implement diesel hybrid sites, solar power, fuel cell technology, along with new methods of cooling and storing battery power. The results will reduce operational costs, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and further improve service reliability. Today, the hybrid powered sites stand in Kenya, the DRC, Mozambique, Lesotho, Tanzania, and South Africa. There are only a handful of towers operational, but the results are promising.

With is successes, Vodaphone’s “green technology program” also presents challenges. The advanced technology is expensive, and inconsistent load demands make it difficult to gauge what amount of support is necessary. In rainy seasons, usable sunlight is a mere 5.5 hours a day, not enough to fully power the towers. Securing space for solar panels is another challenge, though positioning the panels off the ground is providing a short-term solution. In 2011, tower security is the largest challenge facing Vodafone. The technology exists, but the effectiveness is severely limited by implementation due to a risk of damage and theft.

To provide access to power in rural markets, Vodafone is rolling out a solar-powered cellphone, complete with a built in solar panel on the back of the handset for charging. The phone launched in India from late 2010 and will push through Africa in 2011.

In the case of Vodafone, the “Africanized” technoscientific operations unfolding in developing parts of Africa could lay the framework for the rest of the developed world to follow.

Metoyer, a student at Arizona State University, is studying the important developmental role that multinational corporations now play in the sub-Saharan. He’ll be working in West Africa this summer, in his own private venture, based on a small-scale energy-efficiency innovation, which permits low-cost charging of cell-phone batteries off the electrical grid, thus meeting a key demand of rural Africans: juice to keep their phones running.

G. Pascal Zachary blogs at Africa Works.

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