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Africa Calling

March 31, 2010

Jenny C. Aker and Isaac M. Mbiti in Boston Review:

Ten years ago the 170,000 residents of Zinder were barely connected to the 21st century. This mid-sized town in the eastern half of Niger had sporadic access to water and electricity, a handful of basic hotels, and very few landlines. The twelve-hour, 900 km drive to Niamey, the capital of Niger, was a communications blackout, with the exception of the few cabines téléphoniques along the way.

Then, in 2003 a Celtel mobile-phone tower appeared in town, and life rapidly changed. “I can get information quickly and without moving,” a wholesaler in the local market told me. Before the tower was built, he had to travel several hours to the nearest markets via a communal taxi to buy millet or meet potential customers, and he never knew whether the person he wanted to see would be there. Now he uses his mobile phone to find the best price, communicate with buyers, and place orders.

Zinder, which has since grown to some 200,000 residents, still has no ATMs or supermarkets, and many roads to surrounding villages are made of sand or compressed dirt. But it is filled with small kiosks freshly painted in the colors of the prepaid mobile phone cards they sell. [More]

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