Ghana Calling: Dust, Multiple SIMs, and Music Sharing

Prices of farm goods and maternal health information aside, everyday mobile phone use in the sub-Saharan country of Ghana is also about dust, owning multiple SIM cards, and music and video sharing. This article offers examples of everyday mobile phone use and some thoughts about user experience that emerge from these examples.

Dust

“The number one problem people have with their mobile phones here in Accra is dust,” says Kwaku, a mobile phone repair technician who owns a shop located in one of the many suburbs of the sprawling city of Accra. “People come to me with their phones and say, ‘There is a problem.’ Mostly it is dust getting into the ear and mouthpiece, which we clean out with spirits and a small brush.”

January is peak season for the Harmattan, a dry wind from the north which clouds the air with dusts from the Sahara. On a typical day, it looks foggy and the temperature is cool because the sun is obscured by the blocking dust. However, if you are a piece of delicate electronic equipment, like a mobile phone or a laptop, you are working overtime. In his shop, Kwaku and his crew will repair any phone, name brand or imitation. Besides dust, battery issues are the most common problems people have, especially issues with poor quality batteries often found in imitation phones. Damaged batteries from incorrect charging are also a common problem.

Multiple Phones and
Multiple SIMs

All but one of the people interviewed for this article (a nurse, an HR manager, a domestic worker, a university professor, a nearly blind, retired 80-year-old man, and Kwaku the phone repair technician) have more than one SIM card or “chip,” which is the preferred term here. For the HR manager, the university professor, and the phone technician, this means having multiple phones in everyday use. The HR manager has two, Kwaku has three, and the university professor has five different phones! For the nurse and the domestic worker it means having a dual SIM “China phone” (see next page), but some China phones come with three and even four SIM card slots.

The mobile phone service providers make it very inexpensive to acquire SIMs, and advantageous to speak with people on the same network. Network issues mean you occasionally only get through to people on the same network. Since it costs less to call people using the same mobile phone company and most people prepay their phone credit, if you run out of minutes on one SIM, you can use one of your other SIMs/phones.

Most people use multiple SIMs as a way of keeping in touch with, and track of, different spheres in their lives; for example, one phone for business, one for family, and one for girlfriends and lovers (Kwaku), or one for business and one for private calling (HR manager). If most of your family uses one mobile phone company, you will use the phone/SIM that will allow you to speak with them for the least cost.

However, with multiple SIMs in everyday use comes the challenge of keeping track of the different rates and promotions on the different networks used. Number portability has yet to be implemented, and each mobile phone company has a three-digit prefix assigned to numbers using their network. Most people know what prefix belong to what network and try acquire a number with the same six last digits (out of a total of ten) on different networks.

Other issues people have as a result of having multiple SIMs are issues with transferring their contacts between different phones (on different networks), and the inability to transfer credit from one network to another.

China Phones

The expression “China phone” is ubiquitous in Ghana. These are phones made in China as copies of international brands. For example, instead of Samsung you see Samsunk or Sungsam. In other cases, brands are spelled correctly but are written in a font that differs slightly from the authentic version. There are also brands, such as Techno and Donod, that copy the look of an international brand and contain software like “Windows XP Mobile” (which does not actually exist). As an aside, Nokia, both genuine and fake, is the most popular brand here, relying on a reputation for good quality (see Figure 1).

photographs of imitation Nokia cellphones

Figure 1. (left) The “Fake Nokia”. Figure 2. (right) Another “Fake Nokia”.

China phones come with their own features as well as their own usability problems. In addition to typical features, such as making and receiving calls, text messaging, calendar, camera, and video, they come with features such as multi-colored blinking keypads, and voice disguise, which you can use to change the pitch of your voice to the person you are talking to. You can even sound like a baby if you want to. They also come with different implementations of predictive text that many people find quite difficult to use. These extended features are found by traversing convoluted menu systems available in languages that include English, Arabic, and Spanish. Poor battery performance is another issue with China phones. “China phone batteries work double,” Kwaku tells me. “The lights and speakers draw a lot of battery.” He also comments that the early China phones were of better quality. He believes the quality of these phones has been declining.

In spite of their reputation, many people seem to enjoy the innovative features on their China phones. A nurse I interviewed owns a fake Nokia E72 (see Figure 2), which comes with a TV button and antenna that lets her watch her favorite soap Storm over Paradise while commuting to and from work (see Figure 3). She demonstrated how she gets all the Ghanaian channels with decent reception (see Figure 4). She has used the phone for two years without any problems and was so enthused about it she went back to the store to buy another one for a family member, but they were sold out.

images of cell phone TVs

Figure 3. (left) TV button. Figure 4. (right) Mobile TV.

The choice between multiple SIM phones versus multiple phones seems to be a decision based not only on features selection, for example television, but also status. The HR manager I interviewed said he didn’t want a dual SIM phone because they “look too fake.”

Music and Video Sharing

Music and video sharing is a very common phenomenon in Ghana. Using Bluetooth or micro memory cards, people share popular music they are listening to, music they are practicing at church, and music and videos in languages from different regions in the country not easily available in Accra. One person I spoke with showed me a cartoon of a tomcat serenading his feline friend in Hausa. This is good for the distribution of music, but bad for the copyright holders.

Mobile Phone Use in
Sub-Saharan Africa

What does all this mean for understanding everyday mobile phone use and user experience in Ghana and sub-Saharan Africa? People are aware of many of the things they can do with their phones—for example, saving numbers to the contact list or using Bluetooth to transfer songs to friends—but they don’t necessarily know how to do it. They rely on friends, children, or someone literate to show them or do it for them. However, the understanding of how the features work is not always correct. One person I interviewed told me that Bluetooth could be used to record music from a TV.

Nokia has had some success developing very basic phones for emerging markets, adding features like a flashlight to mobile phones. However, in my work I see that being illiterate does not mean you necessarily want to use a basic phone. A domestic worker I interviewed, who is not literate, owns a fake Nokia smartphone that she uses for calls, playing games, listening to songs, and taking pictures and videos. She is aware of the text messaging feature on her phone and would like to use it, but her lack of literacy is holding her back. She confessed that she will pretend not to have read a message from someone she is flirting with, so the person will not know she can’t read.

Kwaku, the phone repair technician, tells me that people come to his shop to learn to use the phone, “I have lawyers coming in, and also people who can’t read and write,” he says. “Some people have a mobile, but they don’t even know how to dial a number. First, I will teach them to dial and receive calls. Then, sending text messages and locking and unlocking the phone. After that, I tell people to explore—to get to know the different features of their phone.” Many also have their children help them use their phones. At my local Internet café, a mother recently pulled her 10-year-old son out of the café to help her dial a number on her mobile.

Many business opportunities have arisen as mobile phone use spreads to every sector of Ghanaian society. The biggest market selling China phones in Accra is located around a major regional transport station, Kwame Nkrumah Circle. Here, entrepreneurs with computers sell ringtones and games to people who do not have access, or don’t know how to connect to the Internet or use a computer.

Everyday mobile phone use in Accra, Ghana, has some unique challenges, but in other ways it is similar to how mobiles are used in other parts of the world. For the average Ghanaian mobile phone user, the mobile is a tool for communication and entertainment. This less frequently reported perspective is important because the bulk of the users here are not found patronizing agriculture and mobile-health applications. Ghanaians use their mobile phones to stay in touch with family and friends, conduct business, share music in church, and organize funerals.

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