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Why do Cameroonians have multiple cell phones? By Patrick Awondo

Shireen Walton14 May 2018

Author: Patrick Awondo

Photo (CC BY Patrick Awondo)

Last week, I was sitting in a kind of popular restaurant here in Yaoundé, known as a “tourne-dos”. The expression means “showing your back”, which describes the particular way people sit in street restaurants near the road, not wanting to be recognized by passers by.

I took my place in one such “tourne-dos” and was preparing to order my food, when I noticed that the two men sat next to me were both holding two phones. Actually, this is not uncommon in Yaoundé, and elsewhere in Cameroon. Although the 19 millions Cameroonians who have a mobile phone tend to have just one phone, a significant number of people own two or three smartphones, and use them simultaneously. In fact, so significant is this phenomenon of multiple phone ownership, that one of my Cameroonian friends living in France, prior to the start of my fieldwork, advised that I should focus on this prominent issue in my research.

Tracing the best network

Indeed, people I have had discussions with – whether young or old, rich or poor – often highlight the fact that they keep two or more phones. Their respective explanations all make sense.

The most widely cited reason for having more than one phone is the variability of access and cost amongst the many different mobile phone operators in the country. Even in cities these differences still hold true. In Yaoundé, some areas are less covered by llrtain networks, while others have good quality almost everywhere, with accurate services.  Two weeks ago, one of my informants told me that the habit of having many cell phones is a practical answer to the weakness of mobile networks companies:

“you see in some neighborhoods you merely find the two mains companies Orange and MTN. You are then obliged to have a third one, which could be Nextel or even Camtel. Some of my friends have two or three simcards. They think this is a good solution”.

Having multiple phones (and sim cards) therefore appears to be something that helps people stay connected everywhere in the city and across the country. Another informant explained how he has created his own hierarchy of mobile phone companies:

“you need to choose the best one to be reachable everywhere. People have their own preferences, depending on who they call and where those people are located. Sometimes you have to call your parents who are in the village far from Yaoundé. There is no MTN or Orange network, but only Nextel or Camtel – you need to have one of those if you want to talk to your people. You have to get a Camtel or Nextel sim and buy a cell phone dedicated to this only.”

Along the necessity of having multiple networks for comprehensive access, there are also other reasons. People mention, for instance, certain economic and strategic arguments.

Coping with the cost of mobile phone services

Some of my informants have stated that having multiple phones and sims is a way of managing the cost of mobile phone services. In Yaoundé, as elsewhere in the country, there are four main mobile operators; the French Orange, the South African MTN, the Korean Nextel and the Cameroonian Camtel. Although there is a regulatory Agency for Telecommunication (ART), the cost of mobile services can vary from one to another operator depending on the city and the kind of call one is making (whether local, international, internet). On October 26th, the ART published an article on its blog entitled “The comparative tariffs for mobile and fixed-line operators in the third quarter of 2016”. The publication illustrates how the cost of international calls can differ greatly among the respective networks:

Camtel CTPhone 70F / Min (7h-20h) and 35F / min (20h-7h) 85F / min N / A

MTN 1.02F / sec 1.5F / sec 3.54F / sec and 5.1F / sec

Nextel 0.9F / sec 1.1F / sec 3F / sec

Orange 1.02F / sec 1.02F / sec 5.1F / sec

In addition to issues of connectivity and cost, for some other of my informants in Yaoundé, having one or more cell phones is a way of following social trends, and participating in contemporary social life. Owning two or more smartphones also signifies that one has money and deserves a kind of respect. Sometimes, people dedicate one smartphone for Internet use only, while keeping others only for calls.

In sum, there are many arguments for explaining why people here have multiple phones  – some reasons are practical, some seem to be more symbolic /aesthetic, as well as professional. Such explanations go a long way in explaining the exceptional boom of the mobile phone industry in Yaoundé.

Photo (CC BY) Patrick Awondo