Top Story

The explosive growth of communications technologies has given potential users a wide range of new tools to communicate. Yet beyond the familiar numbers generated by the growth of mobiles, very little has emerged about how these new users communicate. A recent survey from Gamos and the CTO looks at patterns of behaviour for a range of users, particularly poorer users and those in rural areas. Nigel Scott of Gamos summarises the research findings.

Gamos Ltd. and the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) have carried out field research through local universities in Ghana (University of Legon), Botswana (University of Botswana) and Uganda (Makerere Institute of Social Research), which concentrated on talking to users and potential users in rural and low-income areas. The results highlight some interesting features of how people use and access phones, and illuminate factors that lie behind some of the choices that users have to make.

In all three countries, people have a choice of fixed line phones or mobile phones. In each country there is only one major fixed line phone operator, but varying degrees of competition in the mobile markets. There are two major players in Botswana, each of which offers national coverage. In Uganda there is only one operator with national coverage, although others are beginning to expand their network coverage. The largest number of national operators are found in Ghana, where four companies offer services, although coverage is far from comprehensive.

In both Ghana and Botswana, it is fixed line phones which dominate the market, especially in Ghana where 87% of respondents use fixed line phones compared with only 20% who use mobiles (N.B. people can use either or both). Use is more balanced in Botswana, where the mobile market is more developed - 67% and 45% use fixed line and mobile phones respectively. Uganda is the odd one out, where mobile phones dominate (56% use, compared with only 21% who use fixed line phones). This reflects the interesting situation in Uganda whereby MTN, who were awarded the second national operator’s licence, chose to use cellular technology, so mobile coverage of the country is high.

It might be assumed that the use of short messaging service (SMS) might closely match mobile phone use, but this does not appear to be the case. Only in Botswana has the use of SMS really taken off, with 31% of the sample taking advantage of this service, compared with only 8% and 3% in the Uganda and Ghana surveys respectively. This reflects the relative sophistication of users in Botswana, where the level of education attained by the sample was highest. In addition to communication, mobile phones now offer a range of features which may influence their popularity; for example, a taxi driver in Kampala stated that the most useful feature of his mobile phone was that he could play games whilst waiting for clients!

With regard to other communication services, use of email and internet services is still low, ranging from 5% in Botswana to 12% in Ghana. Ghana was the only country with healthy numbers of cybercafes in major provincial towns. It is not clear why internet use in Ghana is relatively high, as cybercafes there have to pay trunk call charges to connect to ISPs, which was given as one of the reasons for the lack of cybercafes elsewhere. We assumed that poor literacy might be a major constraint to internet use, but staff provide a valuable service in overcoming any such barriers. In one cybercafe, a customer sat down at a PC and verbally guided the attendant through all the security features of her email service provider before dictating the text of her email - no problem.

Of all the features of users, the one that stands out in all three countries as having the greatest influence on levels of use of telephone services is education. Better educated people use phones more, have a stronger intention to use phones in the future, and have a more positive attitude towards phones. In Ghana, the differences are most pronounced between those with primary education, and those with secondary education. The same trend is apparent in Uganda, where those with higher levels of education (secondary and post-secondary) exhibit significantly higher use than those with lower education (none and primary). Mobile use in Botswana shows the same threshold between primary and secondary education, although differences between those with no education and those with primary education are most acute when it comes to fixed line phones. This is not true of internet use, where it is only those with post secondary education that make greater use of these services.

Somewhat surprising was the result that by far the most common use of phones was chatting with friends and family. There are a number of aspects of communication with friends and family, such as urgent matters (e.g. funerals and festivals), financial matters (e.g. calling to family members working in cities to ask for money when school fees are due), and generally keeping in touch. Although efforts were made to identify the relative priorities of these issues, it is inevitable that all may come up at some point during a single conversation. Nevertheless, it is clear that far fewer calls are made relating to business matters; figures indicate around half as many as to friends and family.

Users in Ghana with no education show patterns of use similar to the average, with a couple of notable exceptions ­ a higher proportion of their calls relate to social events, and a lower proportion to business use. Similarly, users in areas with no service have similar type of call patterns to the average, with the exception that business use is lower. Of those who only use phones infrequently, the proportion calling family is similar to the sample average, but again the numbers calling business and friends are reduced. All of which indicates the importance attributed by the poorer users to keeping in touch with family matters.


People not only have a choice of technology, but they also have a choice of access points. Public phone booths are common to all countries and generally found in commercial centres, although in Uganda booths can be found in remote rural communities, and many booths are connected to cellular networks. Telephone shops (or communication centres) are shop premises run by an attendant where people can make calls in relative privacy as they are not on the street, and most are fitted with cubicles. We had expected to find that a significant number of people, especially in remote areas, would access services through a few individuals who owned private mobile phones, but this was not borne out by the surveys. On the contrary, the view was strongly expressed in both Uganda and Botswana that, although it was regarded as culturally acceptable to ask individuals owning private mobile handsets to make calls, this was strictly regarded as a gesture of good will, and not a commercial service. It was mentioned that although individuals had offered the use of private handsets as a "commercial" service a couple of years ago, this practice stopped with the introduction of public access points in trading centres i.e. people are prepared to travel to access public phones rather than pay a premium. What the surveys do show is that there is now a significant number of people who own mobile phones, ranging from only 8% in Ghana to over 30% in Uganda and Botswana.

It appears that people are prepared to pay a premium for assisted service when using phones. In Ghana, telephone shops provide an attended service, and are clearly the preferred means of access to phones. The preference in Uganda is also for telephone shops, but the distinction in attended service between booths and telephone shops is less clear in Uganda, where the second national operator has taken an innovative approach to installing public booths. MTN have recognised that problems of neglect and vandalism can be mitigated through local "ownership", and now have a policy of installing booths in partnership with a local entrepreneur, or attendant. The current arrangement is that the partner makes an investment (roughly 10% of the cost of the booth) for it to be installed at his premises, and can then make a profit in a number of ways:
- charging a premium on units paid using a phone card;
- getting a percentage of the coins taken by a booth;
- charging for a message delivery service on incoming calls to the booth.

So what lies behind this preference for attended service? It is often suggested that the technology itself constitutes a barrier to use amongst poorly educated people in remote areas - that they simply do not know how to use a phone. Attendants in telephone shops all have stories to tell that confirm this point of view e.g. picking up the receiver upside down, placing the receiver on the desk and shouting into it; they also help with telephone "etiquette", such as how to finish a call (stories of people continuing to talk long after the person at the other end has hung up). They do point out, however, that people are quick to learn, and only need to be shown once so this is not likely to be a problem for long, given the current rate of increase of exposure to phones. Attendants also have customers who, although familiar with phones, are not comfortable with dialling procedures and simply prefer somebody else to make a connection; one feature that appears to cause some concern is that of computerised voice messages, which people either have difficulty understanding, don’t trust, or just don’t like.

Possibly the most valuable service carried out by attendants is the delivering of messages - this registered as a positive attitude in Uganda, and was the strongest attitude expressed by respondents in Ghana concerning telephone shops. There are essentially two types of service:
- people call the attendant and make an arrangement to call back and speak to a person at a later time; the attendant then delivers a message to that person giving the time of the call, so that they can come to the shop and wait for the call;
- people call the telephone shop and give a message to the attendant, who then passes the message on to the recipient. Messages tend to be delivered verbally, and people see little if any additional value in written messages, complaining that written messages are less reliable.

An effective message delivery service depends on community networks - knowing how to get hold of a person. There are plenty of examples of innovative ways of tapping into existing networks. One telephone shop in Ghana is helped by an old man in the village (who is a regular customer) who knows most families, so if the staff do not know the recipient, the messenger is sent on his bicycle to the old man, who can give him directions. Another has an arrangement with a lady who runs a stall in the trading centre, close to the telephone shop, such that they can pass messages to her, and she ensures that messages are delivered through her customers. The location of the booth can be critical in providing access to these networks. In a remote rural village in Uganda, for example, a booth has been installed at the headquarters of the Catholic diocese and the attendant can pass messages to visitors to the adjacent school and health clinic; the school is a particularly effective network, as children from most of the surrounding villages attend daily.

One of the interesting features of a message delivery service is that it has to be done properly if it is to work. If people cannot be confident that their message will be delivered, they will not be prepared to risk the expense of a call to the telephone shop. The booth attendant in another rural village in Uganda goes to great lengths to personally deliver all messages, and is convinced of the value of the reliability of his service, which is reflected in the high payment (which is discretionary) that many recipients make for this service.

The impact of the message delivery services offered by telephone shops is evident in the proportion of incoming traffic to areas where these are the preferred point of access. The findings shows that in both Ghana and Uganda, telephone shops are the preferred means of access to phones, and Botswana is the exception, where most people tend to use public booths. Now, in Ghana, the proportion of received calls is 38%, which compares with only 27% in Botswana, and clearly shows the important role played by telephone shops in facilitating incoming calls. It is interesting to note that incoming calls tend to be longer than outgoing calls (but only by 20%), indicating that residents in rural areas have less disposable income than those they are communicating with, who tend to live in urban centres. In Ghana the majority of calls (made and received) are trunk calls (around 70%), and in Uganda (where most people use mobiles so the trunk / local call distinction does not exist) half of all calls are made to/from the capital. The exception is Botswana, where the distribution of calls is more even with local calls being the most common, followed by calls to mobiles.

Other issues arising in people’s decision to use booths or telephone shops include privacy (and noise) and queuing. Telephone shops tend to be fitted with booths, giving people a far greater degree of privacy than booths, which are generally of the open hood type, and are located on the street. Privacy and noise can be a particular problem in rural villages where the booth is located in a busy place such as the market place where people congregate during the course of the day. One of the advantages given for telephone shops is that they eliminate the need to queue. It is not apparent why this should be, as most shops only have one or two lines, but it is apparent that with seating, they offer a more pleasant queuing experience.

A further issue is that of choice. It is puzzling to see informal operators doing brisk business in market squares in Botswana providing access to a phone on a table under the shade of a parasol, when their stall is sited next to a public booth where tariffs are lower. The answer may lie in the fact that these private operators can provide a choice of mobile services, in contrast to the booths which are installed by the fixed line operator. The choice of point of access becomes more important where the tariffs are such that people pay a premium for calling across networks.

Some of the factors influencing people’s choice of access point included the fact that telephone shops are not open at all hours, and the belief that booths may read phone cards incorrectly. However, the decision appears primarily to be based on cost issues. The belief that booths are the cheapest means of accessing services is influential in Ghana, and in Uganda the role of attendants in managing calls and helping reduce costs is important; note that this can be either positive or negative i.e. attendants can either be helpful (reduce costs), or keep you on the phone longer (increase costs).

Some interesting debates arose in Uganda with regard to the affect that booth attendants have on costs. During the course of one meeting, a man pointed to the hand painted sign in the street, and complained that although the sign advertised phone cards for sale, there were none to be bought. The attendant conceded that he was able to sell cards, but this was news to the villagers - they had only been able to pay for calls using his phone card. The reason lies in the profit margin that can be made from various means of payment. Attendants typically charge a 50% mark-up on calls made using a phone card, claiming this is line with guidance given by the operator. By contrast, if they have a coin operated booth their commission is only around 5% - 10% of the coins taken, and the commission on selling phone cards is similar. Card operated booths are often preferred, as they are less prone to problems with reliability and vandalism, and in these circumstances the attendant makes it easier to access the phone by overcoming the capital investment required to buy a card. So on the one hand, attendants promote phone use by providing customer service and reducing the amount of money needed, but on the other hand they can inflate the cost of calls by protecting their source of income.


Communities in Ghana and Botswana were categorised according the telecommunications service level offered, ranging from no service to high service where there were fixed line services plus coverage by two or mobile operators. This distinction was not made in Uganda, where the mobile network is dominant, and most of the country is covered (although there are local variations in quality of service). Samples were split equally across four categories of service level. It can be assumed that service level corresponds roughly to urban / rural context as there is a link between service level and main occupation - most farmers are in areas with no service, and most professional people are in high service level areas.

It is evident that many people living in areas with no service are travelling in order to access services e.g. 79% and 82% in Ghana and Botswana respectively. The level of ³occasional² use of booths in Uganda is consistent across levels of service level i.e. there is demand for a certain level of high priority calls, for which people in areas with no service coverage will be prepared to travel to access phones.

People in these areas have to spend time and money in order to get to a phone, indicating that they place a high value on the service. Figures vary from country to country, but the average cost of travel is around the $0.50 to $1.00 mark. The survey in Uganda was the only one to expressly ask how long respondents took to access phones, and the results show that the majority of those who have to travel take from half an hour to two hours for the round trip.

Letters are the most common means of communicating, and can be delivered by the post or by messengers. There are a number of factors influencing the reliance on letters for communication. In areas of Ghana with no service, the reliance on letters is less than for the sample as a whole and people prefer to travel to visit people instead; this is tied up with issues of literacy and quality of the postal service. On the other hand, there is reduced reliance on letters in urban areas of Uganda (as opposed to rural areas), where phones have now taken over as the most common means of communication in urban areas.

A further issue that can be seen as important is the risk associated with travelling to access a phone. Indeed, amongst older people in Uganda (over 40), the belief that using a phone avoids risks associated with travel (as an alternative means of communication) is the most important driver influencing their intention to use phones.

Equally interesting is how many people are not using services in areas where services are available. In Botswana, for example, over 80% of those who do not use fixed line phones live in areas where service is available (45% are in areas with the highest service coverage), and similarly, in Ghana, over 60% of those who do not use fixed line phones live in areas where coverage is available. This indicates that there are groups of people who are not using services, although they are available, amongst whom other issues are important, such as the need to travel to a phone (especially with fixed line phones), they the fact that people feel they don’t know how to use a phone.


This is the practice used with mobile phones whereby one dials a number, lets it ring a couple of times, then hangs up before the phone is answered. The number of the person initiating the call is then displayed on the handset, and the owner can then decide whether or not to return the call. The practice enables people to communicate without paying the cost of a call. Although the practice was found in all countries, it appears to be most common in Uganda (reflecting the dominance of cellular technology). One public booth located next to a school had the line identification masked, presumably in an attempt to prevent the practice of beeping, but the children had found a way of overcoming this - they arranged with their parents that if they beeped three times, then it was a signal that they wanted to be phoned back. It is not quite true to say that people beeping do not have to pay for the call, as telephone shops generally charge a fee for the service (although this is much less than the cost of making a call).

Intuitively, it might be expected that the practice would lead to increased phone use, on the basis that those without resources to pay for a call can still "initiate" a call. On the other hand, it may be that phone use in a rural area is more or less fixed, and beeping simply enables a reversal in the direction of traffic. As beeping is practised throughout the country, it is not clear to what extent the practice increases overall phone use. The popularity of beeping is reflected in the "success rate" - the proportion of beeps returned to customers using both booths and telephone shops is similar, at 40%.

There must some form of beeping "etiquette" which determines who will beep, and to whom beeps will be returned, and it is expected that this is largely based on financial resources. This is confirmed to a certain extent by the fact that although the proportion of successful beeps made from personal mobile phones is slightly higher at 45%, these people are more economical with their own air time, and call back only 34% of people who beep them.

There are circumstances where beeping can be used to communicate a message in its own right, such that there is no need for the beep to be returned, which is obviously not in the interests of operators. This was only observed amongst highly sophisticated users for local communication e.g. indicating arrival at a meeting place. Although an interesting example of how users can adapt services in imaginative ways, it is unlikely that this will become widespread.

The aim of the research is that this information will be of use to key players in the telecommunications industries of African countries (and elsewhere). It is hoped that the information will promote a better understanding of how people actually use services in practice, and play a part in stimulating innovative approaches to ways in which telephone services can be made more readily accessible to those in remote and low-income communities.