WHEN I met 30-year-old Pythius Lubinda at Bina Business Centre (BBC) in the heart of Mumbwa town, little did I suspect that he had once walked 30 km just to come and charge his newly acquired mobile phone.
"Few months ago, excited by my new gadget, I was disturbed when the battery suddenly went flat. My village mates advised me to go to town and have it charged at ZK2,000. That is how I embarked on an unforgettable 60 km return trip on foot"
For town dwellers with access to electricity, this might sound quite unrealistic but not so for Lubinda. Buoyed by community members, an encouraging wife and zeal associated with owning a new phone, the trip became a necessity.
"What is good about a dead phone? He asked in apparent reference to what prompted the walk.
As we chatted at BBC, people kept trooping in to check on their phones, each clutching a red tag. The centre, also a busy newspaper selling point, has devised a phone identification system to reduce customers picking wrong phones.
A quick identity chit chat showed that the customers present came from five chiefdoms; Kabulwebulwe, Mumba, Kaindu, Moono and Shakumbila, showing how the problem cuts across chiefdoms.
Domiciled in Kamilambo Village in Chief Kaindu's area, Lubinda provided running commentaries on how his kith and kin travel long distances just to plug their mobile devices to electricity.
"You know that most areas in Mumbwa have no electricity so we have no option but to protect our investment in this technology.
In our communities to have a mobile phone is development, although this development is clearly expensive"
I was nonplussed when he mentioned the word development for obvious reasons.What is development anyway if it can't sort out people's problems? As a long time town dweller many are the times I take the task of charging phones for granted.
I suppose we all charge our cell phones daily if not every other day. Some even keep the chargers plugged into a wall outlet permanently, oblivious of its drain on power. Others charge all night long, letting the phone suck electricity like a baby stuck to its mother's breast.
Lubinda told me that in the last few months, he had nurtured herbal product distribution that has increased family income.
"Because of my involvement with Dynapharm products I can now afford to board a canter to town to sell my products and also take time to charge my phone" Married to Aggie Simakumba, a fellow Lozi, with whom they have five siblings; Lubinda doesn't want his children to pass through the same suffering.
"We buy phones from mobile companies, pay them for talk time and yet they fail to provide us with suitable chargers. I hope our children won't inherit this exploitation"
Although rural by nature, Mumbwa District is only 150km west of the capital Lusaka in the Central Province of Zambia. It is accessed by the tarred Lusaka
-Mongu Road and borders Kaoma in the west, Itezhi-tezhi and Namwala in the south with Chibombo, Luanshya and Kasempa donning the north.
With a land expanse of 24,000 square km or 25 per cent of the Central Province, Mumbwa, although undeveloped is a big district.
It is clear that Government in the foreseeable future will not manage to electrify the area to the satisfaction of the locals. The onus therefore rests squarely on mobile providers to come to the aid of Lubinda and those in his shoes.
One solution is for cell phone companies to invest in renewable power in aid of areas like Mumbwa. These companies have a powerful motivation to get renewable power to rural areas. This could be through coercion, market dictates or with a bit of political force.
Mass action can also be initiated against the failure by mobile companies to provide appropriate chargers for their products. The majority of the phone chargers provided for rural clients are inappropriate because of lack of electricity.
The best roadmap is to allow cell phone companies some incentives to change their off-grid cell towers powered by diesel to renewable energy, like the one recently installed by Airtel in Chongwe.
These green site solar powered towers, designed to look like a palm tree can become rural mobile charging centres. Worldwide old towers are being converted from diesel to renewable power sources, although Zambia seems to be lagging in this area. As mentioned the same locations for these towers can, with community support be modernised to host multiple solar chargers for the rural clientele. This can cut the long walk to town and allow locals to utilise nearby power sources.
Isn't it ironic that we pay mobile cell phone service providers for using our cell phone and also pay ZESCO for charging our phones? Shouldn't we be thinking of investing in free power from the sun?
Zambia as a whole is endowed with excessive sun exposure, which can easily be tapped to fill the gap left by lack of access to conventional electricity. Most rural dwellers pay through the nose for paraffin and also have to spend a large portion of their income on trips to towns to charge their phones.
Cell phone providers can also invest in solar equipment on hire purchase. Customers can use a mass approach to acquire the equipment, using their phone numbers as surety with a communal levy on the phone scratch cards.
1000 members of a community can use their mobiles to pay a small levy towards offsetting equipment costs. Other innovation can also be brought into the mix like pedal driven chargers mounted on bicycles. Our cell phone companies can even invest in a Trust to help implement such innovations.
A home solar system on a pay as you use basis could go a long way in alleviating the problems encountered by rural subscribers. Renewable energy sources that involve the use of solar power units is the way to go. Government can also be lobbied to allow the importation of solar charged phones.
We also need to take cognisance of the fact that under the Act of 2009, section 70,
ZICTA has been mandated to equitably promote widespread use of Information Communication Technology services across the country. How rural towns like Mumbwa benefit from this mandate is dictated by several factors. Chief among these factors is Affordability, availability and accessibility.
It is evident that owning a mobile phone in rural Zambia is close to a curse. How else can you explain the weekly movement of people dozens of kilometres just to charge their phones? Clearly rural communities, despite appreciating the communication gadgets are being given a very raw deal.
The sum cost of owning a phone in rural settings is on the higher side. While we appreciate government moves to ensure most areas are covered by phone providers regardless of location, more needs to be done in these undeserved areas.
As I bade farewell to Pythius Lubinda, we all agreed that "Mumbwa Mumbwa" would be an appropriate local name for solar cell phone chargers if and when introduced in Zambia.