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In War-Torn Congo, Going Wireless to Reach Home

Fiston Disundi, an ex-soldier, receives cash in a transaction recorded on the teller's cellphone. The payment aims to get fighters to turn in their guns.
Fiston Disundi, an ex-soldier, receives cash in a transaction recorded on the teller's cellphone. The payment aims to get fighters to turn in their guns. (Kevin Sullivan - Twp)

When one of Congo's first cellphone networks opened in 1999, it had capacity for 4,000 customers, but 30,000 people lined up outside the office demanding a phone, said Gilbert Nkuli, of Vodacom Congo, the largest of the five cellphone companies competing in the country's booming market.

Africa has attracted multimillion-dollar investments from many of the world's major cellphone companies, including Finland-based Nokia and U.K.-based Vodafone. Vodacom Congo is co-owned by Vodafone and a South Africa-based company, while Celtel, the second-largest provider in Congo, is owned by a Netherlands-based company that has operations in 14 African countries.

The two operators have built about 700 cellphone towers across Congo. Vodacom's Nkuli estimated that 70 percent of the country's 60 million people now live in areas with cellphone coverage.

"People would rather be without a shirt and trousers," Nkuli said, "and they'd rather go for days without food, instead of not having a phone."

Dealing in Minutes

Down a rutted dirt road on the tattered outskirts of Kinshasa, Iyombe, 36, sat in the tiny two-room house he shares with his wife. He had been hoping for a career as an electrician, but when he finished his training in 2001, he couldn't find a job. The Congolese economy had been run into the ground by three decades of corrupt dictatorial rule by Mobuto Sese Seko. Then, after Mobutu was overthrown in 1997, the country dissolved into a war that has left 4 million people dead.

Amid all the despair, Iyombe spotted something new and promising: people carrying cellphones. The more he looked, the more he saw his future in the little gadgets. So he saved and borrowed, spending $500 for his first phone (the average price has since come down to about $40), and started charging people to make calls.

Now he's at the heart of Kinshasa's new airtime economy, in which minutes on a cellphone are a commodity that can be used, bartered or sold for cash.

In Kinshasa's noisy street markets, thousands of people sit at little wooden benches with signs that say appel , French for "call." They keep one or two -- sometimes four -- cellphones in their laps. They buy airtime in bulk from phone companies, then charge customers a small premium to make calls.

Amid the exhaust-choked chaos, airtime dealers sit patiently under colorful umbrellas or in wobbly plastic chairs offering exactly the same service as perhaps 30 or 40 other dealers working the same corner. They're all busy all the time.

At his little stand, which was the first one in his neighborhood, Iyombe said, he sells hundreds of calls a week and makes a profit of about $20 -- a fantastic weekly wage in a country where most people live on $1 a day. Iyombe supports his wife and pays rent for an aunt and school fees for two nephews. "I love my work," he said, wearing the bright red T-shirt of Celtel.

A large part of Iyombe's business is transferring airtime for his customers. They give him cash, and he transfers the minutes from his phone to wherever the customer wants them sent -- a friend, a relative or a business partner, often in some distant corner of this country the size of Western Europe.

The transfer takes only a few seconds: Iyombe needs only to enter the amount of airtime and the phone number of the person receiving it. Cellphone companies have added that function to phones in the past year.

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