Rural Liberia: Where mobile phones are still a rarity

Thuraya satellite phone

In many villages, satellite phones are the only way to make a call - and even that doesn't always work.

This is my first time in Africa. However, the one thing that all my colleagues with Africa experience had told me was: “Everybody has a mobile phone.” This made sense to me based on my experience in Haiti where, even though the country is extremely poor, many people even had two mobile phones, one for each network. In Liberia – not so much.

Only 4 per cent of women have  access to a cell phone

Internews recently published a study showing that only 37 per cent of all male and only 4 per cent of all female refugees from Ivory Coast have access to a functioning mobile phone. Not “own one” but “access”! While you might argue that the refugees are probably in a worse situation than many Liberians, my feeling is that cell phone penetration among Liberians in rural Nimba is not much higher, either. (Obviously the situation is different in the capital Monrovia).

The main reasons:

  • Many villages are not covered by the two big Liberian cell phone providers, Lonestar and Cellcom. Ironically villages that are right at the border sometimes fare better, because they are covered by MTN and Orange from Ivory Coast.
  • The Ivorian phone providers block phones for outgoing calls if that phone has not been used for a while.  While this is also standard in a lot of Western countries – normally after one year of inactivity – apparently MTN and Orange block your phone if you haven’t used it to make an outgoing call for only a few weeks! And of course, the only way to reactivate it is to buy extra credit, which many people can’t afford.
  • Some villages don’t have electricity, not even a generator, so people cannot charge their phones.
  • In the villages where you have generators, you have to pay to charge your phone. This means that many people only switch on their phone when they want to call someone or when expecting a call.

Considering that many villages are in very remote areas and extremely hard to reach, this lack of phone coverage has direct implications for the delivery of aid. While in other countries, you can use mobile phones to inform communities about planned activities, in Liberia organizations sometimes have to find people from a certain village during market day in the next town, to pass a message to their community. While this tends to work quite well for news affecting the whole community, it can be more difficult when you want to reach particular people, especially refugees who might not be widely known in the host community.

 Sorry – moved houses

Take my work, for example: On a daily basis I’m travelling around the county to see children who have lost touch with their parents and for whom we have information regarding  their parents’ whereabouts. Sometimes this is just a short letter saying “Dear daughter, we are well. We are back in the village.” Sometimes it is a request to bring the child back to the parents (a service that the ICRC provides in some cases). Sometimes it can also be sad news, for example when a family member has died. The point is, we actually have to find and talk to the recipient of the message in person.

But a lot of times, when we arrive in the village where the child is supposed to be, he or she is either working on a farm (which can be a two or three hours march from the village) or we just find out that they recently moved to another community. But without any means of communication, there is no way to relay that information to us in time. As you can imagine, this can be quite frustrating and limits how many children we can see in a day.

“Mommy, I’m fine and I’m in Liberia”

Of course this also has implications beyond being an inconvenience for me and my colleagues: without means of communication, many refugees have not been able to tell their relatives where they are and that they are alive. When we go to the villages, we always have mobile phones and a satellite phone with us (whatever works) that people can use to call their relatives. So many months after their flight, I would have thought that the majority of refugees would already have had some way to get in touch with their relatives. But in a lot of villages that is clearly not the case and as you can imagine it can b very distressing not to know where members of your family are or whether they are even alive.

From what I hear from my colleagues, Liberia is the exception among many African countries and cell phone service here is significantly worse than in other countries. But is shows that mobile phones are not the one-size-fits-all solution that some people suggest it is.