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16 - 23 July 2008 
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Botswana: Cellphones Revitalize Business

Cellphone Revolution
In July 2005, approximately four-fifths of Botswana’s population did not have access to electricity. However, enterprising village entrepreneurs have utilised the opportunity created by the lack of electricity to fill the resultant niche in the market for the recharging of cell phone batteries. These entrepreneurs have overcome the problem by utilising the novel idea of offering to recharge mobile phone batteries for a small fee using their automobile batteries to do the charging.


Among the many groups that have benefited from mobile phones, women are perhaps the largest. Ms. Stadile Manthe who runs a small retail ‘tuck shop’ and phone service in the village of Mmopane, a short drive from the capital, Gaborone started her business in 1998 and slowly expanded her inventory. She thought that if she could start her own business, maybe she could “get something.” She certainly has got something and mobiles and their associated services have greatly assisted her in achieving this.  


Every day she opens her small shop at about 7 a.m. and closes at about 9 p.m. In 2000, she began to offer mobile phone services. Ms Manthe decided to incorporate mobile phone services into her business after seeing a Mascom advert in the local newspaper. She decided that it would be a good idea because the mobile public phone service was a new concept in Botswana. Shortly after seeing the Mascom advert in the newspaper Ms Manthe approached the Women’s Finance House of Botswana for a loan in order to purchase a mobile cellular unit. When she was granted the loan she purchased a mobile public phone and the service provider taught her how to operate it. She now sells airtime scratch cards, and provides battery recharging and mobile public phone usage services.  


Despite the small size and location of Mmopane, Ms. Manthe was able to earn an additional P200 ($32.42) a day with the introduction of the various mobile public phone services. With the profits from her tuck shop business Ms. Manthe was able to build several rental houses. She now has five such houses and is in the process of building the sixth. She used local people to help her build the homes, providing work for local artisans. Ms Manthe told the team that, “[she was] very pleased with her decision to become an entrepreneur”.


Although the success of Ms Manthe cannot entirely be attributed to mobile cellular services that she provides, the mobile phone has enabled her to place orders for her tuck shop, increased her efficiency, and has provided her with regular additional income. The additional money that she now earns as a direct result of the advent of the mobile phone is by no means insignificant. It is has raised her capacity for saving and investment and helped her to become the proud owner of half a dozen rental cottages.


Furthermore, not all the benefits of mobiles are necessarily measurable financially. The fact that they have assisted ordinary business people to stay in contact with their customers is easily quantifiable. However, the value of a life saved by the new found capacity to call an ambulance in an emergency is priceless to the person saved as well as to friends and family of the person.  


In an effort to gain some perspective of the value that mobiles confer on small businesses we spoke to Ms Grace Maoramaba about the benefits of cellular technology in her business. She has owned and run her own clothing business from home for over twenty years. She left a steady government job to start and run the business full-time. Ms. Maoramaba travels to S.A., Zambia, Thailand, Dubai, and Hong Kong to buy clothes.  She buys second-hand clothes in the African countries and new clothes in the Asian countries and in Dubai. She told us that mobile phones are a real help.


With the aid of mobile technology, she is able to keep in close contact with her clients, calling them to let them know when the clothes they like are available and schedule deliveries and pick-ups more efficiently than before.  Much of her business comes from referrals by satisfied clients and prospective clients are always able to reach her on her mobile and arrange a place to meet. She said cell phones are “very, very, very helpful. Suppliers from overseas can call her, even when she is out seeing clients.  She says that had a landline before and that was ok, but now everything is very “fast.” 


As a mentor at the WFH, Ms.Maoramaba encourages the other ladies in the WFH group to use cell phones, as they’re good for business.  Sometimes these women call her for advice and help about the business, among other issues. Life for her has really changed since she became an entrepreneur.  Now that she is in business, she makes a lot of money, but to make this money you have to work.  This is unlike her experience in government, where one gets paid even if he/she is doing little.  She says that in business, “You don’t have to talk, you have to work, physically, mentally, and emotionally.”


Ms Maoramaba says that nowadays, “Business is tough,” but this teaches her how to survive in tough times.  She says that she has learnt how to manage her finances in a way that she didn’t understand before.

She needed to do this because the market is flooded. “In a tough market, you have to identify something different that your customers might like and  must always concentrate on quality,” she says. She gets her customers by word-of-mouth and so has developed a reputation for good quality clothes. She also provides her clients with personal attention. For example,she only sells clothes to women she has seen, so that she has a good sense of their body size, what colours would look good on them and what styles would suit them.




By Jasson Urbach
Economist with the Free Market Foundation.

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