TWEAPEASE, Ghana — At 5:30 a.m. the roosters crow, a signal for the Martey girls to begin their morning chores in this cocoa farming community tucked inside the forests of the Asunafo North region of central Ghana.
Alima Martey exits her bedroom and delicately places her smartphone against a powder-blue porch column before she sweeps the area clean. Her phone stays in the same position until bedtime because “this is one of the few places where there’s phone connection in our entire village,” said the 23-year-old.
Tweapease was completely wired with electricity in 2014 under the Cocoa Life project, funded by chocolate maker Mondelēz International. Mobile connectivity still remains scarce. Leaving her phone on the front porch was the only way Martey could receive calls from family in other villages or to be notified of mobile transfers that she may have received.
In many villages like this one dotted across West Africa, residents engage in a similar daily scramble to find phone service, raising questions about whether experts claimed a victory too soon on the spread of mobile networks on the continent. Roughly 50 percent of sub-Saharan Africa is covered by 3G and 4G networks, according to the GSMA 2016 Africa Mobile Economy report. Yet that still leaves many communities lagging behind.
Mobile technology analyst and report co-author Kenechi Okeleke said it may be some time before the “economics of network deployment” will lead to mobile phone access in every rural area. In the meantime, sectors such as cocoa farming may be suffering. With limited access to information, cocoa farmers are often unaware of government updates on the sector, current pricing or upcoming weather forecasts that could impact crops. Improving connectivity could also help improve health care and education, as well as increase financial inclusion.
Barriers to entry
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Two-thirds of the African population live in rural areas. But for now, many mobile phone operators don’t see a strong business case for entering those markets, according to Brian Owusu-Bempah, manager of logistics at Olam Cocoa processing plant in Kumasi, Ghana.
“For a cell phone company, it’s a business decision whether to expand into that cocoa growing area, because they are looking at profits and return on investments,” he told Devex. “It doesn’t make much business sense to go into the rural areas.”
Limited literacy is one reason; mobile users in rural areas may not be equipped to fully utilize a wireless internet connection. Without better language and computer literacy, “they will continue to simply use their phone for making calls, perhaps to listen to the radio, and that’s all,” Bempah said.
Spending power is also a deterrent for business, said Okeleke. “In these areas, you have a high-cost rollout and low spending power,” he said.
Bempah argues that telecom companies are unlikely to move into rural areas unless there is a government intervention to partner with operators. The GSMA report urges interventions to consider four key areas: digital skills and awareness, network coverage, affordability, and locally relevant content. The report suggests that closing the coverage gap requires a multidimensional approach between the mobile industry and governments.
Even with government backing, providing rural coverage is not a simple task. In 2007, the South African Broadband Infraco Act mandated the creation of a government-owned backbone fiber connection to extend connectivity to underserved communities. However, as of now, the state-owned network still has not been successful in achieving network coverage, due to heavy associated costs, a separate GSMA report found.
“There are efforts by telecoms companies and governments to make network coverage available to all of sub-Saharan Africa, but it will take time,” Bempah explained.
An industry left behind
Without better mobile access, farming communities have a clear disadvantage. They have limited access to market information or extension services.
Mobile phones can link farmers to information about competitive pricing and weather. Awareness about weather forecasts allows them to plan when to use agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. Mobile phones also could allow cocoa farmers to communicate directly with clients to sell their beans or learn about recent developments from other farmers, NGOs and government officials.
Having access to price information can improve farmers’ and traders’ bargaining power, help secure a higher price for crops, and reduce waste and spoilage, one study in India found. Some experts hypothesis a similar effect in Africa.
Okeleke told Devex that the mobile industry is aware of the digital divide. They are discussing solutions on how to provide services in “unviable” areas, including tower sharing, through which multiple antennas could be installed on a single cell tower. Operators could also share more advanced core or radio access networks. Doing this enables mobile operators to deploy networks more efficiently, and it also reduces costs compared to standalone deployment. The Ugandan government, for instance, has developed a National Broadband Strategy that promotes open access and tower sharing to reduce infrastructure duplication and the cost of network installment.
Governments that support infrastructure sharing may need to establish policies to regulate roaming agreements and other conditions that may limit collaboration among mobile companies.
Additionally, policymakers can support rural expansion efforts by offering fair and nondiscriminatory access to public infrastructure. The majority of existing infrastructure in remote areas — including buildings, open spaces such as parks and squares, legacy fixed-line telecoms infrastructure and public utilities — is owned by governments and public institutions.
A matter of life or death
Well beyond cocoa production, mobile connectivity can have an impact on an entire community’s well being, as CARE International Ghana facilitator Emmanuel Oduro recently learned on a visit to a nearby farming community, Domi Beposo.
Oduro was leading a one-week visit organized by the German-based Exposure and Dialogue Programme, which invited German senior-level government officials, development workers and private sector members to spend 72 hours living with cocoa farmers in rural Ghana.
One night during the visit, Oduro heard screaming, he recalled several days later. “When I arrived near the gathered crowd, I realized that a young woman was in labor, and had no way to get to the hospital.” Without any bus, taxi, or moto transportation nearby, Emmanuel was troubled with how he could help this woman. He realized that he was the only person with a mobile phone connection, allowing him to call the next village for a taxi.
The woman delivered a healthy baby boy, and even named him Emmanuel to say thank you to the man who helped her find a way to the hospital.
Editor’s note: The Exposure and Dialogue Programme facilitated Devex's travel and logistics for this reporting. However, Devex maintains full editorial control of the content.
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