Uganda’s telecom sector is a bustling industry, but modest income customers in a country with over 50percent of its 27.4 million population living under one dollar a day, have no access to electricity and suffer a stressful life to maintain their mobile phone batteries, which costs anything between Shs 3000 (over US $1) and Shs 5000 (over US $2) per week.
In an industry first, Uganda Telecom Limited has now come up with a solar battery powered phone, targeting such customers as Miriam Cheka, 33, married with three kids and expecting a fourth soon. She saves Shs 2000 from her daily earning of about six thousands profit out of an average Shs 80,000 (US $40) capital investment in her small fish business.
Found seated on woven three-legged stool – hardly a foot off the ground – in front of a huge heap of sun dried small fish (locally called Mukene) is a dark skinned big body framed expectant mother, Cheka, whose dream is to build at least a two-roomed house, has been boosted with the acquisition of a solar powered cell phone.
Cheka is among of estimated 3,500 vendors in a crowded market with over 50 percent of them selling local grown foods and vegetable on unsheltered wooden stalls - standing a foot above the muddy floor that was once cemented, now choking with littered garbage and plastics.
Nearly every vendor in the municipal market of Arua town has a cell phone hooked on the five Mobile Telephone Networks. The cost of maintaining their handsets is soared by lack of electricity, but they to have keep communicating.
Cheka who has been using a Nokia 1200 (locally called Katala, because of its spot light) over the past three-years would spend an average of Shs 3000 to charge her phone a week at the few kiosks with generators here in Arua, the West Nile regional capital, 510km north west of Kampala.
A week after using her newly acquired ZTE-G S312 solar powered cell phone (now locally called Kasana, means Sun), loaded with airtime of Shs 5000 (US $2) at Shs 81,000 (about US $40), Cheka, whose husband is unemployed - meaning she is bread winner – says she is now able to increase on her savings aimed at starting construction of her house.
“Now the Shs 3,000 (Over US 1) I have been incurring to charge my phone every week will be added on to my daily savings of Shs 2, 000 (US Cents 96),” a beaming Cheka reveals as she isplays her new solar powered ZTE-G S312 on the heap of Mukene fish spread on her stall for sun.
“The new technology will me raise the ten bags of cement I need to start construction of a three bed roomed house by end of this year. The rest of the materials like bricks and sand are within reach of my plot. I have a small plot, which I got out of my savings since I started operating in this market as a vendor late 2004. So I continue to pray to Allah that I get to realize my dream,” she adds in an interview later in front of her one roomed house on dilapidated block in a slummy suburb called Zambia on the outskirts of Arua town with neatly designed grass thatched hats and a few mud and wattle houses roofed with rusty corrugated iron sheets.
“Among its functions is a radio which plays all day if I want without any worry of loosing power,” a smiley Cheka said while displaying her ZTE-G S312 highlighting a solar charging function.
ZTE-G S312 is stylish mobile handsets for GSM 900/1800 or 850/1900 dual band in a handy size of 06mm×45.6mm×18.1mm with battery solar panel at its back, but retains the provision charge using electricity.
“Both batteries have a circuit breaker against over-charging. It can endure up to 65-degrees centigrade solar charging temperature in full sun condition,” says James Mutebi a technical personnel from the Uganda Telecom Limited (UTL) that has introduced the phone in a country with a fast growing population at rate 3.6 percent.
Out of the 27.4 million population in landlocked Uganda with a growth rate of 3.6% the third highest in the world, an estimated 8million are in possession of cell phones with some tens of thousands hooked to all the five networks, but more than 90 percent have limited access to electricity.
Official figures from Umeme, the national electricity retailing company show that only 350,000 households are on the grid, leaving out majority who live in the countryside where there is no electricity mains.
“It is more taxing for our relatives living in villages. Many of my relatives in the villages some lying over 20-kilometers have to trek long distance to get their cell phones charged at an average cost of Shs 1,000 and more. For one hour they pay Shs 500 which does not fill up the battery. So one has to spend Shs 1,000 to get your phone fully charged, lasting at least three days.”
No More stress, as other loose business
Cheka goes ahead to explain that with the solar powered phone, all that stress is no more and instead the time lost will be better utilised in their gardens and other economic activities in their homes, denying business to Khemis Abdlrahman, 27, who operates a phone accessories and charging kiosk using a generator.
Khemia is worried that his earning will dwindle with the advent of solar powered cell phones saying, “certainly this will squeeze my income as people in this West Nile region suffering an acute supply of electricity switch to the new technology which cuts the cost of operating a cell phone.”
“I am now left with only selling airtime. I pray that what they save on charging their phones they use it increase consumption of airtime.
“I have looked at the new solar powered cell phone and found that it’s the kind which is durable that even investing its accessories and spare parts will not be plausible because it is not fast selling,” Khemis, a Senior Two drop out with difficulty to speak English laments.
Inside Khemis’s kiosk at a muddy Arua taxi park after a heavy down pour one finds him charging more than two dozens cell phone of all types on wooden panel with 38 sockets of mainly British, China, South Africa, and American manufacturers.
“I am able to charge up to 34 cell phones at ago as my current maximum capacity from my small generator which also powers my recording music system with a computer.
“I fill my generator with five liters each at Shs3, 000 (over US $1) to ran for about four hours, a duration enough have all phones fully charged.
“My charges vary. I charge Shs 500 (US Cents 2) for one hour. On average a phone to charge fully it will require at least two hours giving Shs 1,000 (US Cents 4) from each,” Khemis reveals.
This brings another tangle between the telecom and energy sector. While the former is growing fast, telecom experts have been lamenting that low electricity coverage will continue to slow down penetration levels of such services.
This innovation of a solar powered phone will no doubt have a direct impact on the energy sector, looking at the dwindling numbers that phone charging kiosks in Arua handle now. The projected loss, even at a micro level, is Shs 60,000 of daily income for Khemis, who says some of his customers have already switched the new innovation.
“On a good day I can pocket Shs 60,000 (US $29) out phone charging alone, so this is what I am to loose should people here in Arua and its environs switch to the solar powered phones.”
By Samson Ntale
Ugandan based journalist
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