20 January 2014

africa and technology…can it work?

Owning a mobile phone and using internet in Tanzania works a bit differently than in the U.S. of A.
  • Two-year contracts are non-existent. (Not a bad thing.) 
  • Plans range from as short as 20 minutes to at most 30 days. (Wow, that's short.) 
  • Mobile phones are not subsidized. (Sticker shock, especially on smartphones.) 
  • Wi-Fi can hardly be found. (Darn.) 
  • Everything is pay-as-you go with cash. (But I like credit!) 
  • And things generally just do not consistently work. (Well, I guess that answers the question in the title of this post.) 
So to shed a little light on life here, this post will chronicle our experience of acquiring mobile phones and Internet service in Tanzania. How exciting!

Step 1: Visiting the Vodacom Shop.Vodacom is one of the big wireless providers in Tanzania. Ashley and I strolled into a Vodacom Shop in Mwanza a couple days after we arrived in Tanzania. We wanted two working mobile phones, and one working Internet modem. Simple enough.

left big red verizon in the u.s., now on to big red vodacom in tanzania. 

Thankfully, an experienced semi-mute 13-year-old Vodacom professional assisted us with our technological needs. After about an hour in the shop, Ashley and I walked out with what we assumed was functioning hardware, including my sweet new Nokia brick phone.

pros and cons of owning a nokia brick phone. seriously. 

Step 2: Things go wrong.We left the Vodacom Shop and tested out our Internet modem back at the house after purchasing a weekly bundle of unlimited Internet. The modem, of course, would not connect to the Internet. I called Vodacom customer service and explained the situation. They quickly concluded that, while I had purchased the device in a Vodacom Shop, it was not actually registered or activated by Vodacom. This task was evidently impossible to complete over the phone because it involved the excruciating task of pushing a button, so I was told to return to the Vodacom Shop.

Takeaway: Customer service in Tanzania is just as stellar as in America.

so true.

Step 3: Re-visiting the Vodacom Shop.The next morning we re-visited the Vodacom Shop and, lo and behold, were assisted by the same superstar veteran 13-year-old Vodacom professional. Thank goodness. He confirmed that he did in fact not register the SIM card on our Internet modem, but that in precisely two hours time it would be activated. Really?

We also explained to him that we purchased a 7-day Internet bundle the day before, but due to the lack of a functioning modem, we lost 24 hours of usage time and requested that Vodacom credit us for the last time due to their (really his) error. He understood perfectly what we were saying and even agreed that a credit was owed to us, but then stated it would not be done because they just do not do that kind of thing. (Oh, now I feel better.)

Step 4: Internet speed throttled to the point of uselessness.Okay so we paid for seven days of unlimited Internet usage but only have six days. Who cares? We now have working Internet – yay! And it worked really great…for about 48 hours. Apparently, there is an undisclosed low-level limit on data usage, and once it is exceeded Vodacom throttles your speed to circa-1997 dial-up AOL. At this point, even Gmail cannot fully load, so we've been playing a lot of Minesweeper.

wow this takes me back. still too soon.

Step 5: Visiting a different Vodacom Shop in another city.Ashley and I left Mwanza with two working mobile phones and semi-functioning Internet and arrived in Musoma for our language school to learn KiSwahili. In town, we visited a local Vodacom Shop (much, much smaller and less legit than the one in Mwanza). We were experiencing various bugs with our service and were looking to sort things out.

We were told by the man that helped us that the “mtoto” (“child” in KiSwahili) that set-up our service in Mwanza entered my date of birth incorrectly. (It was off by 6 years and 17 days…what?) And he entered our names incorrectly. (Seriously?) And he did not register the SIM cards on either of our mobile phones, or our Internet modem. (Oh come on!) I just loved that he literally called the other guy a child.

While he was assisting us, the electricity went out (very common here) in the store. This meant that the shop’s four computers all shut down. There was no expectation from the Vodacom employee that we would leave the store even though the power was out – we, along with several other people, just sat around in the dark waiting for the electricity to turn back on so we could be assisted. Eventually the electricity came back on, and we were able to complete our business.

gallup study 2010 on sub-saharan africa power outages. 

Step 6: Business not completed, and now we can no longer make outbound phone calls. After leaving the Vodacom Shop, we discovered that the SIM cards on our two mobile phones and Internet modem were still not registered. (Dude…) Our dates of birth were still wrong. (How?) Oh, and we also lost the ability to place outbound phone calls. (Um…right.)

When I tried to re-purchase a weekly phone plan with voice minutes, it said that I had only the next 20 minutes to talk on the phone before my ability to make calls would expire. (What the heez?)

Step 7: Back to the Vodacom Shop.We journeyed back into town to solve our technological issues, but this time the Vodacom shop was closed. Bummer.

As of writing this, the situation is unchanged. We still cannot consistently place outbound phone calls. (Who wants to call anyone anyway?) Our Internet is so slow that I actually typed this entire post in a Microsoft Word document and then copy and pasted it into our blog. (True story.) None of our SIM cards are registered. (What does SIM stand for anyway?) We have arbitrary dates of birth in the Vodacom system. (Mid-30’s feels a lot like late-20’s.)

And my phone is nowhere near as cool as that of Zack Morris!

zack morris and his totally cool cell phone.

So what did we get? Hardware below.

our wireless tech. brick phone = michael's. smartphone = ashley's (gifted to us). and an internet modem.

May not be the snazziest line-up, but man is it durable.

even chuck norris is hopeless against the strength of the nokia brick phone.

Concluding ThoughtsOf course, none of this is a very big deal, but it sheds light on the realities of living in a developing country – complete lack of structure, process, or accountability. Things happen when they happen and how they happen.

As Westerners, and especially as Americans, it can be tough to deal with that kind of situation, but this is where we find ourselves and look to take it all in stride.

Hey, at least we even have the potential of using mobile phones and Internet. Some people are still communicating via carrier pigeon. And those birds are just dirty.

okay i kind of want a carrier pigeon for myself.

Oh, but not as dirty as the trash-eating Marabou Stork that we have in Tanzania. Seriously these birds eat trash and they look like they eat trash. Gross.

the dirty marabou stork.

Oh, and in case you want to know how much things cost here…Nokia brick phone = $24.84
7-day bundle of 56 voice minutes + 175 text messages = $1.08
7-day bundle unlimited internet data = $7.73


  1. Good luck my friends! Love my new brick phone!

  2. Hi!

    As someone who may end up in Tanzania, I was wondering if you ever worked out your phone/Internet communication successfully?

    By the way, I love the simplicity of your blog! Keep it up.

    1. Hi D, I don't know if we can say successfully but we have become much better adept at navigating technology here in Tanzania. Do you need some recommendations?

  3. Hi Ashley! Thanks for writing back! I am still trying to decide if I will be going to Tanzania. If I do, I will let you know and will definitely want those recommendations. :)


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