Benin: Where mobile users carry 3, 4, even 5 SIM cards to make a call

By APCNews     CALGARY, 28 May 2009

One cell phone, five SIM cardsOne cell phone, five SIM cards In 1997, the people of Benin were definitely ready for the arrival of cellular phones, referred to as GSMs in the area (GSM stands for Global System for Mobile communication, a specific mobile standard). The fixed telephone was not widely adopted due to a lack of bandwidth and of technology adequate enough to allow the volume of connections necessary to serve Benin. The portable cellular phone was thus the perfect solution and Beninese consumers quickly jumped on this new product. Taking advantage of this new economic opportunity, the top government officials and businessmen of the country established close relationships that were characterised by ambiguous contracts and illicit activities, allowing the creation of several GSM operators. The five current operators that emerged from the Post and Telecommunications Bureau’s “Benin Telecom” are : Libercom, Telcel Benin (that became Moove Bénin), Areeba that subsequently became MTN; BB Com and finally, Globacom.

Certainly the government permitted the creation of all these operators. But how could all these operators enter and remain in this saturated market? The answer is simple: friends of the Kérékou regime did not have to pay for operating licenses, and at CFA 700 (USD 1.50) per communication and CFA 40,000 (USD 85.00) per SIM card, the GSM operators dominated the telecommunications market and Beninese consumers were incapable of exercising their purchasing power.

Given the choice between bad and worse, what choice did the consumers really have? To promote sales, the operators had to find a strategy to incite Beninese consumers. First, the price of SIM cards was lowered – from CFA 40,000 (USD 85.00)to 35,000 (USD 75.00) to 30, 000 (USD 64.00), and so on – the most expensive SIM card now costs about 2000 (USD 4.25) francs. But how to choose an operator? The GSM operators had to come up with a marketing strategy: offering reduced prices for calls made on their own network. Each network offered (and continues to offer) different services and packages on their own networks so that today people can get discounts of up to 95% (by MTN Zone). It is therefore not surprising that the Beninese people have up to five different SIM cards.

Connected but not interconnected

With so many cards, the Beninese are certainly able to communicate among themselves, but how connected are they really, if they must constantly switch SIM cards? Forever switching SIM cards complicates what should be a simple process, and though some Beninese use a phone that permits the use of two SIM cards simultaneously, most go back and forth between cards. With so much demand for telecommunications, the question becomes: “Why then, are GSM operators still not interconnected?” According to Barnabé Affougnon, secretary general of the non-governmental organization (NGO) ORIDEV, director of the CréACTION Agency and telecommunications specialist in Benin, it is a complicated issue to interconnect networks and provide lower prices to the public. He explains that it simply does not serve the interests of the operators, for the interconnection of networks destroys competition and represents a loss in profits. Not only this, but it is also a question of priorities, he states: “The state simply does not make it a priority.”

However, since the arrival of the new President of the Republic of Benin Yani Boni, there has been “tremendous progress” in the telecommunications sector, starting with the standardisation (or almost) of the price of the short message service (SMS) or text message, which now costs about CFA 50 (USD 0.11) per SMS. This is a promising first step. Until 2005, the Republic of Benin was one of the few countries not to have a Post office and telecommunications regulatory authority (PTRA). The new government therefore put in place a transitional authority to assume the role of police, who so far has done a phenomenal job in regulating the sector and cleaning it up. Studies conducted by the new authority have also shown how the Beninese consumer had been abused. First, the regulatory body highlighted the need to respect air time charges by putting an end to rounding up (for example, they charged for 2 minutes instead of 1:15). Then the price of SIM cards was standardised, dropping from CFA 30,000 (while they cost CFA 2,000 in neighbouring countries) and are now available at very affordable prices. However, despite these improvements, there are still serious gaps at the institutional (legal status of regulatory bodies), constitutional and legislative (past-dated and obsolete laws) levels, says Affougnon, and, the government still exerts too much influence over an authority that should be autonomous. For their part, consumer groups remain divided.

Certainly there have been opportunities in the telecommunications sector in Benin, especially in relation to GSMs, and mobile communication is now more affordable than ever. But there is still much work to be done, especially when it comes to the internet. Northern Benin has a fibre optic infrastructure, yet the country does not benefit from it. The SAT 3 fibre optic cable, which is being damaged by overuse in the north, passes through nothern Benin and connects the country’s neighbours Niger, Togo and Burkina Faso, who all have a very good transfer rate. These countries therefore benefit from a service that the Beninese themselves do not have access to. But there is hope: the internet, although slow (512 megabits), has seen a dramatic drop in price with the new government. Four or five years ago, the internet was truly a luxury reserved for the elite, at the cost of CFA 5000 (USD 11.00) per hour, whereas today it costs only CFA 300 (USD 0.65) per hour: “It was painful!” exclaims Affougnon, who is also the owner of a cyber café in Cotonou.

Towards the standardisation of telecommunications

Although telecommunications reform in Benin is but in its infancy, it is important to ensure its continuation: “We must educate the population. They [the Beninese] must learn how they can benefit from ICTs,” urges Affougnon. But this will not be easy. “We must sensitise policy-makers, but in so doing the state risks losing money,” he explains, using the example of Skype, an internet telephony provider that uses voice over internet protocol (VoIP). If the bulk of the population started to use Skype, what would happen to the demand for cell phones?

As there is no group in place to educate the public, it must suffer silently and remains subject to government decisions. But the 2011 electoral campaign has already begun and the current government would do well to ensure that people be freed from the current stronghold of GSMs. In this way, they could certainly sway the electorate.

Note: This article is part of APC’s Communication for influence in Central, East and West Africa (CICEWA project, which is meant to promote advocacy for the affordable access to ICTs for all and is based on researched carried out in Benin by Mr. Barnabé Geraldo Affougnon. CICEWA seeks to identify the political obstacles to extending affordable access to ICT infrastructure in Africa and to advocate for their removal in order to create a sound platform for sub-regional connectivity in East, West and Central Africa.

Photo by Whiteafrican. Used with permission under the Creative Commons 2.0 License.