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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 17:18 GMT
Community phones connect SA townships
By Richard Hamilton
In Cape Town

Old cargo containers in the South African township of Langa are offering people a chance to connect to the rest of the world.

Community phone shop
The containers offer a secure environment to make calls
The metal boxes are home to community telephone shops offering cheap calls in one of the oldest and poorest townships in the Cape Town area.

Luthando Mbomvu, who manages seven shops in Langa, says they have changed people's lives.

"It's like a fairy tale for them," he says, "it's a completely new concept and they're very excited by it."

The introduction of community telephone shops by the multinational company, Vodacom, is having a dramatic impact in a place where 40% of the people are unemployed and living conditions are cramped and crowded.

Leapfrog technology

The shops operate on a simple basis. They provide people with a cheap means of making phone calls.

We have very few overheads and no perishable products. But at the same time we are providing a vital service
Luthando Mbomvu
Customers buy units from the counter at less than a third of the standard price. They pay 85 cents a minute instead of the normal rate of 280 cents a unit.

With these community shops, places like Langa are bypassing the old analogue land line technology, as the centres use the digital mobile phone network.

Mr Mbomvu says that many people in the surrounding area have never even seen technology such as televisions, stereos or mobile phones.

"At first we had to help people a lot with using the phones," he says. "Some of the older people had never used telephones before so they were shouting down the lines and weren't sure how to dial the numbers."

The shops have also become something of a social centre where people come to meet each other or just get talking to one another.

He also believes people feel more secure making phone calls from the safety of the container, which is always supervised, than they do from the street where they could get attacked or robbed.

From inside the containers calls to the emergency services are free. Security is one of Mr Mbomvu's biggest concerns and he has had to instal bulletproof glass at the counters to prevent hold-ups or attacks on the cashiers.

'Vital service'

Every day, hundreds of people use the shops, which Mr Mbomvu started two years ago, and they are providing a good business for him and his 28 employees.

Community phone shop
Calls are less than a third of the standard price
"It has not only empowered people like myself, it has enlightened us. We started out not really expecting to make a good profit but now we are doing really well.

"We have very few overheads and no perishable products. But at the same time we are providing a vital service."

Vodacom introduced the community phone shop concept as part of its licence obligation.

There are now more than 1,300 franchise operators like Mr Mbomvu and more than 2,300 community phone shops in South Africa's nine provinces.

The company says that its aim is to improve the lives of the country's most disadvantaged citizens. It believes that the shops are creating black empowerment opportunities for local entrepreneurs.

For the people of places like Langa, the shops have now become as much a necessity as other basic services such as water and electricity.


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