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Advert in the Daily Nation of Nairobi: ‘90% of Kencell users talk about their bathrooms.’

Jeff Cochrane, USAID, 24 August 2000

Kencell is the second cellular operator in Kenya, inaugurating their service yesterday in Nairobi. It is owned by Vivendi and the Sameer Group, the latter being a local holding company for locally incorporated branches of Firestone, Everready, several banks, an auto retailer, a tea processor, and others. I am told that some senior government officials are shareholders, but I personally have no knowledge of this.

In what looks like an advertising supplement, Kencell tells us that their new payphone service "is part of our universal obligation as per our licence and will assist the general 'mwananchi' to benefit from our GSM technology to keep in touch. Kencell intends to have 100 payphones in Nairobi and Mombasa by the end of this year and aims at having 2000 payphones all over the country by 2005."

The term "mwananchi" (MWA-na-N-chi, not mwa-NAN-chi as many non-Kenyan's like to say it) is Kiswahili for "ordinary citizen" or literally "person of the country". I'm always hearing the Swinglish expression "ordinary mwananchi" perhaps meaning the unprivileged. Kencell thus seems to be saying that their payphones will make cellular service available to the lower income groups of Kenya.

I've noticed that these call boxes are very popular just about everywhere I travel in Africa. Where call boxes do not exist (or do not work), telephone "call centers" operated as private (often informal) businesses are quite popular. The price per unit at these call centers or payphones may be higher than one would pay on a residential handset or cell phone, but without the need for the capital investment in the phone itself, the subscriber joining fee, and other up-front costs. These up-front costs these days are about $400 in Kenya.

These initial capital investments are viewed by many as a major hurdle to access for middle and lower income groups in Kenya and elsewhere. Payphones, call centers, telecenters -- these are all widely viewed as a key solution to this problem.

Of course even without a capital investment requirement to the individual, if the per minute charges are still high, affordability remains a problem.

These are some of the issues I would expect we might discuss at the upcoming conference in Grahamstown:


See in particular the agenda for seminars on day 2. Other perspectives on this issue greatly appreciated.


Jeff @ Nairobi

Information and Communication Technology Programs
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