Supplying diesel to the BTS: An every day nightmare for African mobile operators

Top Story

The business of running a mobile operation in Africa in comparison to Europe or any developed countries should be roughly the same but there are major differences and this starts with the core element of a mobile operator’s network, the base station. Running base stations in Africa is different from running base stations in Europe. The issues around powering a base station for example are altogether dealt with differently in Africa. Isabelle Gross looks at what it takes to African mobile operators to ensure that their base stations are up and running 24/7.

A large number of countries in Sub-Sahara Africa still have little electricity and an electricity grid that too often stops at the outskirt of the capital city. At least in the capital city mobile operators should have a choice of the type of power – electricity from the grid or electricity from the diesel generator – that they will use for their base stations. Unfortunately even in the capital city the supply of electricity from the grid is unreliable with frequent and lasting load shedding. Mobile operators can’t afford to have a base station down because it means a loss of revenue for them. Diesel generators remain the most reliable power source when it comes to keeping base stations up and running 24/7 but this comes at a “high” cost for most African mobile operators.

In small towns and further in rural areas, the only option (beside renewable energy sources) is diesel generators but getting the diesel there is not always an easy and fast task. I recently travelled from Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia to Ganta, a town in the East not far away from the border with Guinea. The distance between the two places is roughly 300km and it took us approximately 4 hours to reach Ganta which was not bad. The road between Monrovia and Ganta is tarmac but there are so many potholes in the road especially after Banga that it quite common to see cars, trucks and buses driving on the wrong side of the road because the state of the road is slightly better. My trip was during the dry season but in the rainy season flooding and mudslides must make this journey much more difficult. The COO of Total in Liberia told me that last least year one of their fuel trucks got stuck six days because of some flooding of the road. During my trip, we stopped in Totola, a remote place high in the hills, an ideal place for a base station. The last hundred meters before reaching the base station was just a dirt track with a very sharp slope. On the way up, I just wondered how the heck a fuel truck makes it to the top during the rainy season. Fuelling base stations in rural areas is not easy and so many things can go wrong until the fuel truck reaches the base station.

Diesel is a precious commodity especially in Sub-Sahara African countries where demand is growing as there are now more and more cars, motorbikes and home diesel generators. Diesel can easily and rapidly be exchanged for cash and therefore stealing diesel can become a lucrative business or more a way to make ends meet. In Liberia for example, a security person in charge of guarding a base station earns between US$65 and US$75 per month. This is not much especially if you have a family and children to look after. The retail price of a gallon of diesel on the other hand is US$4.5. Stealing a couple of gallons of diesel here and there is not only a temptation but the sad reality.

Diesel theft can happen anytime between the moment the fuel truck leaves the secured compound of the oil company up to when the diesel is burnt by the generator at the base station. In between these stages, there are so many opportunities to get small or large quantities of diesel to vanish. This is an ongoing nightmare that African mobile operators have to face and it comes at a cost. In order to minimise the level of diesel theft they have put in place numerous controls and counter-checks at various stages. So for example to avoid that the fuel truck driver delivers less than what he is supposed to deliver to a given base station, the mobile operator will send somebody with him thus avoiding that the fuel truck driver cuts a deal with the security guard at the base station.

Although the level of diesel in the tank at the bases stations is monitored on a daily basis, this unfortunately is not enough to make sure that no diesel will be stolen. Unannounced visits to the base stations are another mean to check that the metre readings of the diesel tanks are made accurately and not a gallon of diesel remains unreported. To further avoid diesel theft in the base station, the pipe’s joints between the tank and the diesel generators are sealed with plastic straps. Diverting diesel at the joint between the tank and the pipe or the joint between the pipe and the diesel generators would require breaking the plastic seals. Whatever measures mobile operators put in place to reduce the level of diesel theft, they will never be enough and all of them add to the cost of running base stations in Africa.

When I visit my mum who lives in the countryside in France, I often pass near a base station erected at the edge of a wood. The base station which has been there for many years is of course connected to the electricity grid and is unguarded. For African mobile operators this must be a dream and they have a long road ahead of them before they can stop worrying about how their base stations stay all the time powered.

To follow the exchanges about this news, you need to be on Twitter. Follow us on @BalancingActAfr

This week on Balancing Act’s You Tube channel:

Editor of Stuff magazine Toby Shapshak on the changes in the use of devices in Africa

Philippe Jacquier, Orange Business on the launch of its cloud-based service, Flexible Computing

Dare Okoudjou, CEO, MFS Africa on selling mobile life insurance and the potential for mobile health insurance

Johan Nel, CEO, Umuntu Media on the launch of Mimiboard, an online pinboard for Africa

Roukaya Kasenally, Director of Comms, AMI
on its new mobile news apps incubator

Ofer Ronen, Sales Director - East Africa, Gilat Satcom
on doing business in South Sudan