Small-Scale Solar Solutions

Commonalities Across Cultures – The Cell Phone: Part 2

Thank you dedicated blog reading crowd! From all of us here in Tanzania, we hope you continue to follow our adventures and tell us what you think about them! Let this be the first official interactive blog post: Yes, that means, once you read it, we REALLY REALLY hope you comment about it. Let us know what you think! Give us your input! What questions might you have that we haven’t even thought to ask yet?

So here goes Part 2 of our findings about the huge impact cell phones and cellular infrastructure have had on the people of Tanzania. As we progress in our project and are getting to understand the daily lives of rural villagers here, we are leaning more and more towards focusing on a solar solution to charge cell phones.

Our conversations with villagers have exposed needs they face every day. Children must study at night by kerosene lantern, a light source not nearly strong enough for reading. For simple pleasures like radio news or music, Tanzanians must spend a large sum of money on replacement batteries. Some people have even told us of the inability to solder to wires together because the lack of electricity to heat a soldering iron or the inability to raise chickens because they cannot light an incubator lamp. Yet, many of these needs have functioning “work-arounds” that it doesnt quite make financial or social sense to uproot. However, charging a cell phone seems to be an entirely prevalent need that has to date, no good solution, and the portion of the population this affects is exorbitant… and growing every day.

Olais, our homestay baba, on his cell phone admidst the vast land of Africa, far from the urban areas

Olais, our homestay baba, on his cell phone admidst the vast land of Africa, far from the urban areas

Let us take you on a short journey to understand the lives of some particularly interesting Tanzanians. Olais, the proud Maasai who kindly invited us in to his house for a homestay, depends on his cell phone to communicate with his family (who are living in many different places) and help conduct his business in town, the bar. In his rural boma, his cell phone still had full signal from the incredible cellular infrastructure in Tanzania. It’s almost guaranteed that in the middle of the vast stretches of flat Tanzanian landscape, you can spot a far off cell tower positioned on the hills.

In the most remote and poorest village we've visited yet, almost all of the villagers we talked to owned cell phones.

In the most remote and poorest village we've visited yet, almost all of the villagers we talked to owned cell phones.

Recently, in the village of Mogesho, the most rural and poorest village we have been to yet, I was blown away by the growing role of cell phones in these villagers’ lives. A particularly memorable moment was when we asked a group of 15 Mogesho villagers who was carrying a cell phone. Sheepish grins spread on their faces as they looked around. Show us!, we asked. At the same time, they all reached under their robes, or into their pants pockets, or in a holder around their neck to grab their cell phones to show us. WOW! I remain convinced that when people who make under a dollar a day and still consider a cell phone to be important enough to spend a large sum of money on, providing a solution to easily charge these phones where there is no access to electricity would make such a difference in their lives.

Peter owns two cell phones with different carriers and he switches between them depending on whom he is talking to. It's cheaper to call people within the same carrier.

Peter owns two cell phones with different carriers and he switches between them depending on whom he is talking to.

And besides the sheer number of cell phones we have seen, the culture around these cell phones is just as fascinating. Cool fact: you can send cell phone minutes/money to a friend through your phone if they are out of minutes. Cool technique: Peter owns two cellphones which he carries with him at all times. Each phone has a SIM card with a different carrier so he can call different people who have different carriers. Over time, he said it’s much cheaper to do it that way as calling within the same carrier is cheaper. Cool fashion statement: Momoi, Olais’s second wife, has started to adapt the famous Maasai beading art to cell phone neck holders. She’s making this for herself now, but hopes to make them for others soon. Cool usage scenario: Three village leaders we met, Songoyo, Samuel, and Ibrahim consider their cell phone an absolute necessity because they need to be accessible to anyone in their village who needs them at a moment’s notice.

Momoi is using the traditional Maasai craft of beading to make a cell phone holder.

Momoi is using the traditional Maasai craft of beading to make a cell phone holder.

From these stories, and many others, we have identified the need to charge cell phones in these rural villages as an important, prevalent, and unsolved need. The next questions we hope to answer are: for whom exactly are we designing this product? For the wife who stays close to home all day and needs to charge only 3 cell phones a week, those of her family. Or maybe for that entrepreneurial barber who wants to start a side business off of charging cell phones for less. But one thing there is no question about is how important the cell phone is in the Tanzanian’s life.

What do you think? What questions are you left wondering? What can we do to really delve deeper into the area of cell phone usage and charging habits?

Cant wait until Monday when we bring out our prototypes to the villages!


July 24, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Cool! I’m curious—I want data! How many minutes / month are phones used, on average? How much money is spent on charging?

    Comment by BCS | July 24, 2009 | Reply

    • Hey bro! We have asked a lot of people about their minutes/week usage, which varies immensely. Some people carry their cell phone everywhere but seem to use it very sparingly and go through very few minutes/week. Others, especially the village leaders who we talked to, were using 5000-10000 Tanzanian shillings worth of minutes per DAY! Then others, like children, would “flash” their parents (which means let it ring once then hang up) which signals to the parents to call the child. That way the parent has to spend minutes and it’s free for the child. haha Prices for charging a cell phone range from 300-500 shillings (20-40 cents), depending on how long it takes the phone to charge. Over time, this amount definitely adds up and is a high price to pay for less than $1/day. Thanks for reading!!!

      Comment by Lesley Silverthorn | July 25, 2009 | Reply

  2. Hello all!!
    I have a question, but first I have to write the context 🙂

    It’s very common here in Colombia to see people in the streets selling cellphone calls by the minute. People does use that service because usually it’s just cheaper than refilling your cellphone (most people have pre-paid cellphones).

    Does something like this happen in Tanzania?

    Please, keep it going!!!!

    Comment by Daniel | July 25, 2009 | Reply

    • Hola Dani! So glad you’re reading our blog! 🙂 Wow, that’s a cool technique, and no we haven’t seen that here! I actually haven’t met one person yet though that has a pre-paid cellphone. They all load minutes on to their phones and are charged by the second. The only people I have seen who sell phone calls are people who own land lines (very uncommon here!). We once paid $8 for a 4 minute conversation on a landline!! Ridiculous right? I think that’s why people choose cell phones over fixed line phones 🙂 Chao mi amigo!

      Comment by Lesley Silverthorn | July 25, 2009 | Reply

  3. Hi,,such a timely story. I am wondering if you will be having a monsoon season there and if that might cause disruption to the solar charging process….the pictures are terrific…Bern

    Comment by Berni Anderson | July 25, 2009 | Reply

  4. While thinking about this – certainly sounds as if the charging station needs multiple slots or a way of growth in that area. If going the way of business – the charging time may need to be faster (although time is different – still want the phone quicker to be able to move on). If going the way of home – charging over time may be less of an issue.

    Are we sticking to cell phones? The need for other charging is apparent – light, tools, etc. The ability for different connection seems important and the distribution of power may be a technical issue (worth it or maybe not – one at a time faster)

    Again if for a business – would they charge less for using a solar station or about the same? Somewhere the idea of ROI will be a decision for a family buy / village buy or business buy…

    not mean to use up all my comment area – my guess is you have all this covered – maybe a question back is what seems to be a mystery to you so far in your finding?

    Comment by Judy | July 26, 2009 | Reply

  5. Hey guys

    Nice to see you people taking your work to Africa!
    This is an awesome blog!
    I am Mehek btw… from d.light India… where I believe Concentrate started! 😛
    best of luck!
    P.S. Heyyy Greg!! 🙂

    Comment by Mehek | July 26, 2009 | Reply

  6. This blog is awesome. How great to share these experiences with the world, esp. those of us stuck at home :P. Keep it up!

    Maybe this is answered somewhere, but do you guys have a good sense for how much people are actually making? Referencing $1/day is a good baseline, but is that a reality? Presumably income is seasonal with harvest? Are there other purchases or usages (of cell phones or other things) that vary with seasons? In India it might be weddings or festivals – anything like that in TZ? Do people notice charge capacity diminishing over time? Are they finding themselves having to go to town to charge more frequently? Are there any in-village solutions?

    Sorry if some of these are already covered – I hadn’t checked this in a while and didn’t know you guys would be so prolific!

    Comment by Alex Tung | July 26, 2009 | Reply

  7. Hi nice blog, I’m making a article for a free digital publication and I want to use some of this pictures of africans using cell phones to put them with the name of the photographer in copyright of course… thanks.

    Comment by francisco rey | April 28, 2010 | Reply

  8. Hello, I’m editor of the magazine at the Eden Project here in Cornwall, UK. Just stumbled across your interesting project while looking for a picture to illustrate an article on apps as a force for good, with particular reference to Africa. The pic of Olais above is perfect, and I’d be very grateful for your permission to use it. Full credit will be given, of course. Your site hasn’t been updated for a while – hope you’re still going! Best, Mike

    Comment by Mike Petty | January 21, 2011 | Reply

    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks for checking with us. We are happy for you to use this photo, just please give us credit!
      We are still going, but under a new name: Angaza Design. Please check us out:!

      Comment by Lesley Silverthorn | January 24, 2011 | Reply

      • Many thanks! Do you want me to credit fromconcentrate or angaza? Mike

        Comment by Mike Petty | January 26, 2011

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: