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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 September 2006, 23:04 GMT 00:04 UK
Mobiles break bones as Africa aims high
By Wycliffe Muga
Business programmes, BBC World Service

Kigoma, north west Tanzania
Mobiles have spread to small, remote villages across Africa

Sometime last year, the Ugandan humorist, Joachim Buwembo declared that he had discovered a new epidemic that threatened many lives in Africa.

This was a condition he named as Nebrols.

He noted that the rapid spread of this condition had been detected in rural parts of Uganda, where medical workers found themselves overwhelmed by the number of elderly men and women who had sought treatment for broken arms and legs.

What he was describing, as it turned out, was one of the incidental outcomes of the spread of mobile phone use in Uganda.

The speed at which the mobile phone companies were rolling out their networks had not kept pace with the rate at which the phones were being bought and distributed all over the country.

So there were parts of rural Uganda in which there were plenty of elderly men and women with mobile phones, but where the network signal was so weak that the only way to make a phone call was to climb up a tree on some nearby hill, and make your call while clinging to its branches.

When old people begin to climb tall trees there is bound to be a sudden increase in falls and broken bones.

Hence the epidemic of Nebrols - an acronym for the Network Broken Limbs Syndrome.

And although Buwembo was only joking, the mobile telephone business in Africa has been a remarkable success story, which involved some of the best-known names in global telecommunications.

New giants

In Kenya, for example, the fixed line networks have not risen much beyond the approximately 400,000 lines that had been connected by the year 2000.

A woman works in a field close to a new mobile base station
Not all rural areas have mobile base stations nearby

But in the past six years, almost five million mobile lines have been registered, and what was once a rich man's toy, is now to be found in the hands of every street vendor and market woman.

This, however, has led to some dangerous "magic thinking" on the benefits of modern technology, and a conviction in some government circles that other easy solutions can be found to problems of public infrastructure.

The Kenyan Minister for Information and Technology, for example, recently declared that "Information Technology will be the main driver of Kenya's economic growth", a statement that overlooks the fact that with 80% of Kenyans being small scale farmers, it is greater agricultural productivity that is more likely to yield such growth.

But such wild optimism was only to be expected.

Not only was this complete modernization of the telecommunications sector achieved within a few short years and at no cost to the government.

In addition, the mobile phone companies have since proved to be so profitable, they are now some of the biggest corporate taxpayers.

Energetic walkers

However this is not the sort of miracle that can be replicated in every sector of the economy.

A man repairing mobile handsets
Mobiles are hailed as economic saviours

There can be no painless solution, for example, to the fact that Kenya's electricity tariffs are so high that they make most Kenyan manufactured goods uncompetitive in export markets.

And although solar panels capable of providing free electric power have been available for much longer than mobile phones, these are still too expensive for most rural communities in Africa, where women continue to light kerosene lamps every evening.

Which goes a long way to explain why most people walk for miles to the nearest market centre, to charge their new mobile phones.

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