Connecting Rural People Through Satellite Phones in Zambia

Telecoms

Rural areas that have often been marginalised and cut off from the usage of telecommunication facilities are now getting connected and opening up, thanks to a new project that uses satellite antennas to pick a signal. The project, currently running on a pilot basis in Mumbwa and Kaoma districts, is being implemented by a South African organisation, Connect Africa.

By providing satellite-networked phones, Connect Africa is empowering rural communities with cheaper communication alternatives which, in the long run, will enable poor communities to have a say in shaping poverty alleviation policies.

According to Dean Mulozi, the national coordinator for Connect Africa in Zambia, the introduction of the new technology has been necessitated by the limited capacity of the three mobile service providers to cover the entire country. The technology has been concentrated only in the cities and communities along the railway line.

"We still have so many people in this country who have no access to cheaper and affordable means of communication, especially in rural areas," Mr Mulozi said. It is estimated that only about four million of Zambia's over 11 million population are able to use cellular phones as a means of communication.

In the two districts where the project is running, demand for the service has already outstripped supply with thousands of people having to walk over 10 kilometres to the nearest point to make a phone call. There are only six telephone handsets catering for an average of 4,000 people per phone.

As a result, Connect Africa has had to increase the allocation of credit for some phones from US$50 per week which is often used up in less than a day to $135 for the same period.

To make a call, the beneficiaries of the new technology pay K2,000 per minute for all local calls and double the amount for the same duration for an international call, but they reckon it is far better and cheaper than having to scribble a letter.

Enock Kamwaya, 36, a peasant farmer at Kaoma's TBZ farm bloc, said: "This amount is nothing compared to how we used to communicate in the past. We would write letters that would take over two months to be replied to, or we would not even receive a reply. But a phone call gives you an answer immediately, so we don't write letters now."

"We are benefitting from this programme. Now we can communicate with the outside world. As farmers, we connect with different organisations such as World Vision, Oxfam, and the World Wildlife Fund to help us with fertiliser or markets for our produce.

For the 10,000 peasant farmers at the TBZ farm bloc, communication comes at a high price. In the absence of the satellite phones, people are forced to travel a distance of 70 kilometres to Kaoma town centre to communicate with the outside world.

"Sometimes, when this phone is not working, and there is an emergency such as a funeral, we are forced to board a bus to Kaoma town. We pay K60,000 to go and make a call," disclosed 52-year-old Mildred Muwanei, who was found in a group of people standing in disorderly manner in front of a pigeon-hole window with small pieces of paper in their hands.

According to sub-chieftainess Mulendema, a traditional leader in Mumbwa, the satellite phones could not have come at a better time.

Her chiefdom is located along the highway connecting Western Province to Lusaka, and both towns on her end - Mumbwa and Kaoma - are connected to the national telecommunications grid under Zain, MTN, and Cell Z.

At a time when the Government is striving to improve infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, sub-chieftainess Mulendema represents the plight of thousands of Zambians who are living within a reachable radius from the highways, yet are too far away from communication services.

In commenting on the impact of the innovation on rural communities, Lotty Kakubo, spokesperson of the Communications Authority of Zambia (CAZ), said the Government's telecommunications regulatory body would soon issue a comprehensive statement after conducting a feasibility assessment of the installations.

"CAZ supports the efforts by other institutions to contribute to the extension of services in unserviced areas," Mr Kakubo said.

The pilot project for the rural service delivery network is expected to close this month end after which the CAZ will assess its impact in benefitting communities and determine whether it should be rolled out across the country.

Times of Zambia