Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Where Africa has hope

Guinea and many sub-Saharan African countries have a double-edged sword to play with. Its youths represent both its best hope and its greatest danger. Hope because their energy and vision are needed to take these countries out of the economic and social pit into which many of them have fallen. But they could be the source of massive social explosions if their energies are left unused or underused. As in the Caribbean and many other regions that are developing, young people are in the majority, but they tend to lack economic and political power.

Guinea is apparently growing only slowly yet everywhere there are signs of growing consumption and investment, especially in buildings. Shopping in many African countries is not done in the way that is familiar in the UK, US or Caribbean. Most goods are bought is open air markets. In the Caribbean open air markets are mainly for fruit and vegetables. In Africa, you have to get used to checking out your needs and wants on a street or in a huge organized market. Almost anything you want you will find. Many of these goods are coming from China, from where many goods can be imported at acceptable prices, which are significantly lower than can be found in Europe or North America. Admittedly, many of these goods are being imported in a clandestine manner. They are coming into the countries in suitcases or in containers whose contents have not been truly declared, so they arrive at lower costs (which often means a loss to the government in terms of tax revenue).

Quality services are something that Guinea and many African countries lack. Public services often suffer from government budgets that are so strained that wages (often the first priority for a government) cannot be paid regularly. Thus, other public services are going to be provided in at best sporadic fashion. If the means of supplying the services have never been well established you will see a rapid deterioration in public provision of services such as water and electricity supply. Guinea was notable for many years as a "dark" country, where day or night few areas could rely of electricity and most of the area was in darkness once daylight was gone. That is an aspect that has changed in the past year after a series of national strikes forced changes in how the country is governed. However, where the private sector is allowed to operate services of at least reasonable quality tend to come forward. One area where this has shown spectacular growth is telecommunications. Guinea is just seeing an "explosion" in mobile phone services as Orange (a French company) launched its services on the market this week.
They went on a marketing blitz, which saw the capital plastered with company signs and flags showing where cards could be bought appearing almost every retail space overnight.They added a few "parties" in the capital and were out in force at the weekend trying to encourage more customers. They seem ready to really engage with the market leader, Areeba (part of the MTN telecom group), who started providing services in mid-2006 and has apparently taken some 60 percent of the mobile market. Orange is basically giving away SIM cards (you pay 15,000 Guinea francs [about US$ 4] for a card but it comes with the same value of credit). Orange's service is currently a bit quirky, for instance you get no information about how to activate your SIM or how to know your number, and you have to make calls as if you are calling from abroad. But they are showing that they will aggressively get into the mix. They seem to have taken most of the new buildings that had mushroomed in the capital in the past year.

Areeba had turned the market when it started in 2006 with pay-as-you-talk SIM cards, which they made easily available by having sales outlets almost everywhere and charging relatively little. This was after years of difficulty to get a mobile phone and the scandalous behaviour of the main (national) provider, Sotelgui, who provided poor service but also allowed price gouging whenever new SIMs were put on the market. Both Areeba and Orange will offer aggressive competititon and the support of international companies. In a country of some 9 million people there is enough market for both.

Both Areeba and Orange are basing their services on national coverage. That national image will quickly seem real because the logo of each company is quickly covering every free space, from the walls of football stadiums, to every lamp post, to many minibuses, etc. In quick time most of the country gets reliable mobile services. Some would say that this will probably make a major change in how things will develop. When most of the country can communicate without needing to actually move that is a platform for very fast development. (Another possible twist in the future could be political: in Cote d'Ivoire several years ago it was the existence of such communication that helped cement legitimate election results as people could quickly relay information before polling station officials had time to "change" the outcomes.

Sure, a better life needs more than the ability to make phone calls on mobile telephone, but when you have been denied many trappings of modernity it is a significant step. Isolation is no longer imposed by geographical separation. When you can get such services on a pay-as-you-go basis at very affordable prices, that will change a lot of people's lives. This is not the solution to Guinea's or Africa's problems but it has tended to be an important start in getting past the problems. So, though it's early days I will watch this dust-up over mobile phone services with interest to see if it does provide a solid base for significant social and economic change.

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