David Stairs

People in Kampala admit that when the South African multinational communications firm MTN arrived here a few years back things changed. For a number of years, a small regional company called CelTel had cornered the mobile telephone market in Uganda, but rates were prohibitively high. The publicly owned telephone company, Uganda Telecom, was just jumping into the mobile business. With MTN’s arrival telephone subscribership, which had been on a downward slide in Uganda for years, began to grow, explosively. So did advertising.

Phone stands, early morning

Freedom and choice are powerful selling points in developing world economies, especially where communication is concerned. Uganda is print literate, but secondary education is far from universal. This means that more emphasis is placed upon speech than imagery. One does not have to sit through a Ugandan “Ekwanjula,” or lengthy engagement ceremony, to understand that this society is based upon sound, not sight. High school students perform regularly on local television, and personal conversations are heavy with ritual greetings.

Cell phones have been an affordable miracle for Africans in general, a technology with broad appeal and universal application. Africans are notorious for not keeping time, and African traffic is one of the reasons why. Cell phones enable people to stay in closer touch, whether it’s with one’s family up country, or one’s wife holding dinner while you creep through urban gridlock. Furthermore, Africans are finding novel uses for the technology, like sending cash and/or airtime to friends and relations in distant communities.

So how is cell phone technology marketed in Uganda? Aggressively, to be sure. The three major companies must vie for the pleasure of becoming Uganda’s premier cell phone provider using a variety of techniques. Various types of corporate branding are employed, including painting whole buildings MTN yellow, CelTel red, or UTL cyan. Billboards are big, cell phone company newspaper advertising is prevalent, and corporate logos are prominently displayed on roadside signage.

But the most familiar symbol of cell phone marketing in Uganda is the roadside kiosk. These take many forms. Some are wooden shacks, some are metal, some plastic. Often a sidewalk stand will be no more than a small pedestal with a telephone atop it. Some kiosks are brand specific, but most sell all major brands of airtime. And all are plastered with corporate colors, rates, and logos.

Multi-corporate kiosk

My wife came upon a man one day busily painting a new wooden kiosk. He was using paper stencils and a paper towel to daub red lettering onto the exterior of yet another commercial outlet for personal communication.

Is it possible that all of these kiosks are company approved? Not a chance. Like most business ventures in Africa, informality is the order of the day, and market saturation is a thing purveyors don’t think much about until they’ve tested the waters, by which time it could be too late. Personally, I appreciate the convenience. Airtime is never more than half a block away, and, although rates won’t go down much until the government gets its hand out of the business, for the moment free enterprise seems to be helping Ugandans to better connect.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project

2 Responses to “Selling Connectivity”

  1. Chris Nicholson Says:

    I find this post really clever…when my fiancée was in Ghana a few weeks ago I must admit that I was extremely worried when I hadn’t heard from her in days…come to find out that telecommunications aren’t quite the same across the pond. I was completely blown away that cell phones are the primary source of communication and lan-lines are almost non-existent. I was even more surprised at the rates, along with cell phones being such a new market…Moving along, it is refreshing to see grass roots business and advertising…I’ll bet it sure beats selling lemonade!

  2. david stairs Says:

    Hi Chris. Thanks for the comment. Good to know your fianceé is well, but I could have told you why she was quiet. In Africa one never knows what technology will fail this week: telephone-, water-, email-, auto-, computer; it just ain’t like home.
    As for roadside attractions, Luco set up a candy basket out front of our place and made $54,000/= (about $30) in four weeks. Not bad for a seven-year-old.