Monday, June 7, 2010

Cell phones in Rwanda

Everything you wanted to know about cell phones in Rwanda, and then some:

- The most basic phone models start at about $15, and have indispensable flashlights at the top. 35% of Rwandans have phones, says the BBC. I'd have guessed it was higher, but in rural areas it's probably very low.

- With rare exceptions, cell phones are pay-as-you-go: you buy airtime in the form of a 500 or 1500 franc card and use the card’s code to add credit. Those who don’t have 500 francs at once can buy credit in any amount by paying an phone card guy who will then send credit to their phone (pictured below, yellow vest).

- Credit can be sent from one phone to another, so if you leave your phone unattended, you might find it empty (if you find it at all)!

- Many middle-class Rwandans have two phones. I noticed this phenomenon first at meetings: many people had two phones in front of them at the table. (Two phones would make things awfully crowded in your pocket, wouldn’t they?) They have two because MTN has the widest coverage but the worst prices. So those who live in the ever-expanding areas that get Tigo use their Tigo phone for most communication, but have an MTN phone to receive calls and messages from their MTN-bound contacts. It’s still cheaper to reply to MTN with Tigo, so someone might receive a message from an MTN contact on their MTN phone and respond to the same person from their Tigo phone. Those who are really fancy have a phone that holds two sim cards, usually with two different call buttons on the front!

- Sample prices for MTN and Tigo (exchange rate is about 570 RWF / $1): MTN-MTN text: 30rwf. MTN-Tigo text: 53rwf. Tigo-MTN text: 25rwf. Tigo-Tigo text: 3rwf (raised last week from 1rwf – either way less than a cent). MTN-MTN call: 120rwf/minute. Tigo-MTN call: 90rwf/minute. Tigo-Tigo call: 10rwf/minute (less than 2 cents). I’ve entirely switched to Tigo.

- Many people go online with cellular modems that plug into a computer’s USB port. At my office, we have one MTN modem that gets passed around to several computers. It’s an old model, so to add airtime you must put the sim into a phone; with new models you can add airtime online. The internet is slow but does the trick so long as you aren’t uploading or downloading big files. That is, of course, if the network is up.

- Text message spam is alive and kicking in Rwanda – multiple times a week I receive messages enticing me to enter contests or offering me jokes, news, or romantic advice – all for a fee (~$0.12).

- Cell phone etiquette is a bit lacking here. I’ve seen people answer phones in church, in meetings, while leading a meeting, a waitress while clearing a table at a restaurant…the list goes on. Sometimes they step away, but usually they just cup their hand around their mouth and talk quietly into the phone. There are even those who take calls while driving motos….

Rwanda has issued cell phones to community health workers, speeding the process of getting rural people to hospitals. It’s a trial program currently focusing on maternal health workers in Musanze (a district near mine), especially important when maternal mortality here is 7.5/1000 women – one of the highest in the world.


  1. I too am really surprised at that 35% stat for coverage of cell phones. But I would guess maybe it's because the population here is disproportionately young, and kids/teenagers for the most part don't have their own cell phones.

    Julie Ann in Rulindo

  2. Perhaps you would like to write an addendum re: how Rwandan cell phones are also "waterproof" when dropped in laundry buckets? :-)


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