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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)

Iyombe said many of his customers transfer airtime so that family members in the countryside can resell it. Customers in Kinshasa send airtime to a brother or parent in a distant village, who then sets up under a shady tree and acts as a human phone booth. They sell calls on their phone and earn enough cash to feed their families. In many Congolese villages, cellphone ownership marks the divide between haves and have-nots.

Iyombe said text messaging has been slowed by widespread illiteracy but has started taking off in recent months as people learn key words to text, such as "Call me." He said it is becoming more popular largely because a text message costs five cents, compared with 26 cents for a one-minute voice call. When his mother wants to talk to him, he said, she sends a text telling him to call.

"It was a little difficult getting her to use texts, but now she's very good at it," he said, smiling at the thought.

The demand for cellphone calls has sprouted several offshoot industries. For a fee, people type text messages for the illiterate. In places where there is little or no electricity -- which means most of Congo -- entrepreneurs set up small diesel-powered generators and connect plug boards with 30 sockets. People plug in their phones to charge for a couple of hours for about 30 cents.

Iyombe keeps his own small generator to make sure he's never without battery power.

"Without these cellphones, we wouldn't be able to move forward," he said.

Mobile Accounts

Iyombe spoke while sitting in the larger room of his house, which is just big enough for a bed -- and a television he bought in a cellphone transaction.

Last year he walked into an electronics shop in the city center and picked out the 20-inch TV. To pay, he punched a few buttons on his cellphone and transferred a down payment of $150 into the shop's bank account. The shopkeeper received a text message confirmation that the money had been transferred successfully, and Iyombe walked out with his new TV. Iyombe settled his bill with three more $50 payments via his cellphone.

"I went in empty-handed, but I could still buy something because I had my phone," he said.

Conveniences such as laptops, Internet access, ATMs and credit cards are rare or nonexistent in Congo, so entrepreneurs are devising ways to use cellphones to serve the same functions.

Iyombe is one of about 25,000 Congolese subscribers to Celpay, a company that offers Internet banking through cellphones. Celpay customers make cash deposits into their Celpay accounts and can access their accounts, transfer money or pay bills with their phones.

Dozens of businesses, including gas stations and grocery stores, now allow customers to pay for goods through Celpay. The company that distributes Coca-Cola and Heineken beer also uses the system to collect payment, which means drivers no longer have to carry a safe full of cash on their trucks and constantly worry about bandits.

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