Africa, Development & Aid, Food and Agriculture, Headlines

ZAMBIA: Bringing Phones to the Countryside

Kelvin Kachingwe

LUSAKA, Jan 5 2010 (IPS) - Cellular phones have quickly become a popular and effective means of communication in Zambia, but their use has been concentrated in urban areas. Government and NGOs are now trying to extend these services to rural people.

The Communication Authority of Zambia (CAZ) says only about four of the country’s 12 million people are able to use cellular phones, with much of the rural population unserved by the three commercial mobile phone service providers.

Zambia’s communications network faces several obstacles to its development, including high levels of illiteracy in rural communities, an obsolete fixed line infrastructure, and lack of investment in rural areas where the private sector sees little chance of profits from largely poor communities.

The three commercial mobile phone providers all depend on the government-owned international gateway, which can be used only where there are relay towers and antenna boosters.

But an information and communication technology initiative is promoting the use of solar-powered public payphones in areas not covered by the national telecommunications grid, using satellite antennas to pick up a phone signal.

Connect Africa is running a pilot project in Mumbwa and Kaoma districts in the Western Province, giving people in these two rural communities access to relatively cheap payphones.

“We still have so many people in this country who have no access to cheaper and affordable means of communication, especially in rural areas. This shouldn’t be the case in this age, where ICT is almost everything,” says Dean Mulozi, national coordinator for Connect Africa.

“There is such a high demand for the services. We want to expand the programme to cover the entire country and cater for all rural districts. All the districts not connected (to the mobile phone grid) must be reached,” Mulozi adds.

In the two districts where the project is running, demand for the phone service has already outstripped supply, with thousands of people walking up to 10 kilometres to make calls.

In Kaoma there are only six handsets catering for about 4,000 people per phone. Lubinda Sitenge, a 40-year-old farmer in Kaoma, uses the phone to inquire about the arrival of farming supplies at the nearest depot and to check on prices for his incoming harvest.

He used to have to walk more than 20 kilometres to get this basic information; nowadays, if the supplies have not been delivered, the government price of his crop has not yet been set, or he is not happy with what the market is offering, he simply waits at home.

“Sometimes, because of the distance, we would write a letter and ask someone going near the depot or the office of the district agricultural officer to deliver it for us,” says Sitenge.

“But we wouldn’t be able to get a reply there and then, as the officer would say he would communicate through the headman. So we would be kept waiting for weeks and sometimes months before we could get the message. But with phones now, we are able to get an answer immediately.”

Zambia’s government recognises the hunger for telecommunications in rural areas. The National Information and Communication Technology (NICT) policy seeks to improve access.

Professor Godfrey Lungwangwa, minister of communications and transport, says government has engaged all stakeholders, including the private sector, in seeking and implementing solutions to give rural areas access to the means of communication urban centres enjoy.

“Information communication technology (ICT) is today more central to development than at any other time in history. Without the means of communication, it is practically impossible for the world to be what it is today, in terms of politics, commerce and trade, social networking or personal wellbeing,” says Lungwangwa.

As part of its strategy, the government plans to open rural tele-centres that will offer access to phones as well as broadband internet access. The NICT specifically aims to integrate ICT into reform and support of the agricultural sector, and information on prices, availability of things like seed or fertiliser, or weather forecasts will be an important part of the process.

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