For a country struggling with poverty and its related demons it is somewhat puzzling to see that almost everyone has a cell phone – sometimes two. As a Canadian it is hard to imagine that a rural farmer who earns roughly Cdn$250 per year is able to afford a cell phone.
What’s the trick? In recent years, Tanzania has opened its telecommunications industry to major multinationals that provide satellite service. Satellite telecommunications is apparently far less expensive to implement and maintain than the line and pole system that operates in Canada. With the satellite system, one signal tower is all that is needed to connect a rural area to the wireless world. Forget about hundreds of kilometres of communication line and all the arguments about where to put those lines.
How has cellular communication revolutionized life for the farmer in rural Tanzania? With cellular communication, farmers are able to obtain real-time information on market conditions – who is selling, who is buying and at what price. Prior to cell phones, a farmer may have loaded a cart full of maize and pushed it ten kilometres to market only to find that the selling conditions were poor. Cellular communication has eliminated a lot of stress and added some security to the uncertain business of selling food.
Low cost cellular communication has done a lot for rural development in Tanzania. Internet service is the next step. The same major cell phone providers also provide satellite or data stick Internet service, but for reasons unbeknownst to me (if you have an idea please comment), the cost of Internet service far exceeds that of cell phone service. In Karatu town for example, there is only a handful of places that offer Internet service. The going rate is about 2,000 Tanzanian Shillings per hour (approximately Cdn$1.33). If the average annual income is Cdn$250 a year, one hour of Internet amounts to about double the average daily income. I’ve been told that a monthly subscription is about Cdn$300 per month for 2 GB of bandwidth. At such a cost, rural schools and households cannot afford to use the Internet.
Perhaps it is just that the country is new to the Internet. As the Internet becomes more popular and more people demand it, the price may well come down. The ability of cheap cell phone service to improve incomes may have to work a little more magic before the Internet becomes a hot commodity in rural Tanzania.