Something that has surprised me here in Uganda is the power of the mobile phone. I’ve personally never felt so connected whilst being so far away from home. This is in part linked to the fact that I’ve finally got myself a decent smart phone (yes, dad’s cast off with terrible battery life definitely counts), but is also mainly because the mobile phone is ubiquitous here in the capital city. I had assumed that I would leave behind the rows of commuters hooked to their shining screens, but on the contrary, the taxis are full of them!
On ICSE, communication has been hugely facilitated by Whatsapp, that almost free instant messaging app (which may or may not be taking over the world). We have one big Whatsapp group, through which our Team Leaders regularly share information about team meetings or urgent matters. We vent frustrations, give advice and inspire one another’s positivity in the morning with just the touch of a button. I can use it to talk to friends back home without having to sit in a dodgy internet café, and amazingly I’ve been chatting to mum by Whatsapp call from a taxi stuck in traffic on the Kampala road!
The downfall of it is that this group depends on all of us having smart phones, which is not possible for everyone, and there is one volunteer who misses out completely. Why should so much bonding happen through a mobile phone, when we could be putting more effort into bonding in real life? That said, advice to future cohorts is to definitely bring an unlocked mobile phone. If you don’t, you’ll end up having to buy one here for about £50.
Airtime means mobile phone credit here in Uganda. It is super cheap, and small amounts of it can be bought easily from most shops. Locals would buy 1000 shillings (around 30 pence) every day, and thus work on a kind of ‘pay as you go’ system. This is great for those who can’t commit to a monthly lump sum, or don’t have enough ready cash to pay for a large chunk of airtime in one go. It is much more expensive to call other networks, but most smart Ugandans and business people get around this by having two or three lines that you can contact them on.
Mobile Money is a phenomenon of development in the 21st century. It works a bit like online banking, but not quite. With Mobile Money, you can access cash through your mobile phone. Again, it is super easy and fast to do, with numerous agents sitting on street corners with their little Mobile Money stands. You can also pay bills, pay for goods, transfer money to others, or easily translate your mobile money into airtime! Mobile payment solutions aim to extend financial services to the “underbanked” population in developing countries, which is estimated at around 50% of adults globally.
That’s great, but…
Although mobile telecoms represent a huge opportunity for Uganda, in terms of facilitating interconnectedness and access to information or money, they have their problems too. Power cuts are still rife in this country, and there is little access for rural areas. If they can’t connect with a smart phone, are the more rural communities of Uganda going to be disconnected from development? A Ugandan friend I made here works in a bank running projects to counteract that, by creating access to Mobile Money for rural areas. The government has also backed major initiatives to expand telecommunication services to rural areas, partly supported by the Rural Communications Development Fund (RCDF).
Furthermore, the strength of the link between this country’s development and mobile telephony gives a huge amount of power to a few multinational telecoms companies. The two major competitors are Airtel, an Indian company, and MTN, which is South-African based. British firm Vodafone is trying to enter the market at the moment, whilst Uganda Telecom, the only national company, is fast losing popularity. As these companies line their pockets with millions of Ugandan shillings, they gain increasing power over the country’s population and future.