More than 700 emails await Toby Shapshak, according to his Apple iPhone 4, lighting up on the retro red cabinet in the doorway of his Johannesburg home.
What a difference a couple of decades makes. During the late 1980s, Shapshak wouldn’t have known what an email was and would have been carrying a cellphone that you could hammer a nail in with.
Compare again the iPhone of 2011 to the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X of 1983—the iPhone has 200 hours of standby time, a global positioning system that can geographically locate where you are and can send a picture of your mother to Thailand in two seconds. You had to charge the Motorola DynaTAC for 10 hours to make a one-hour call and it was as light as a lump of lead.
Shapshak, the South African editor of international men’s electronic magazine, Stuff, was one of the first journalists in the country to own a cellphone. “I remember being one of the only journalists with a cellphone and it was completely remarkable to be able to call the newsroom and tell people where I was or what I was doing [and] for people to be able to get hold of me. I remember putting my cellphone number on my first business card. You had a land line, your office address and your postal address, then I had a cellphone number and along came email.”
Motorola came up with the mobile phone in 1983; it weighed nearly a kilogram and could only be used to make calls, nothing else, with a small black screen used to see the numbers punched in the keypad.
Two years later, it reached African shores. Its first African customer was the then government of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to the African Leadership Academy, President Mobutu Sese Seko issued the first ever private telecommunications licence to a company called Telecel, founded by Rwanda-born, Miko Rwayitare (who died in 2007) and American, Joseph Gatt.
Rwayitare and Gatt bought 200 of Motorola’s cellphones for President Mobutu and his administration, in a bid to convince the government to switch from land lines. They sold each phone for substantially more than what they were going for in the US at the time. It meant these phones were merely for the moneyed elite of Kinshasa.
Albert Gatare, Rwayitare’s youngest brother, was one of the first Africans to use the phone and says back then it was a symbol of wealth in the city.
“That time those phones were $3,000 or $4,000. It is difficult to understand [now] how people could have bought phones for that much.
“After the commercial launch, it became a symbol of high class; everyone knew that only ministers, CEOs and rich people had those types of phones. Today you take your phone and put it in your pocket, but that time when you went to a restaurant you would put it on the table, just to show off.”
Telecel’s success was also helped by the continent’s poor fixed landline system, says Gatare. According to Mobile Monday, an international networking organization run by mobile industry professionals, their 2011 Africa report showed that the number of mobile phones exceeded the number of fixed lines by the year 2000. The African Development Bank says the number of land lines is declining.
The company expanded from Zaire into nine other countries: Burundi in 1992; Guinea in 1993; Madagascar in 1994; Central African Republic in 1995; Ivory Coast in 1996; Zambia in 1997 and Zimbabwe, Niger and Togo in 1998.
In South Africa, Joan Joffe was one of the people who launched Vodacom in 1994, the same year she picked up her first cellphone.
“It was amazing that you could walk around and speak. It weighed a ton, though; you could not put it in your handbag, but it was amazing,” she says.
“Our forecast was for 250,000 subscribers in the first 10 years. I can tell you that we had a huge party when the number of connections reached 50,000 towards the middle of the first year. It was a big deal for us,” says Joffe.
Vodacom has customers in South Africa, Tanzania, Lesotho, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, and is considered one of the top four networks on the continent along with MTN, Airtel and Orange.
“Today single operators cannot survive, they must be part of a bigger group,” says Gatare.
Rwayitare sold 80% of his Telecel shares to various telecommunication companies, including Orascom in Egypt, MTN in the Ivory Coast and other smaller companies, for
around $47 million. He moved to South Africa, where he built the most expensive house in Johannesburg’s wealthy suburb, Sandhurst.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2010 41.4% of Africans had a cellular subscription.
One of them is South African entrepreneur Jenna Clifford. The founder and designer of a luxury jewellery brand, in the late 1980s, she had what she called her “porty”—short for portable telephone.
“It looked like a little metal suitcase, but it was state of the art at that time. My previous husband bought his first porty and I saw the benefit of being contacted outside of the office and bought one of my own, [but] you could not take it overseas, the costing was huge in those days,” she says.
As her finger glides along the iPhone 4 in her palm, she says: “It has liberated me. It is not rocket science; you check the picture and you click.
“I felt intuitively that with the advent of the porty, more people would be using them and they would get smaller. Just like computers were once the size of rooms,” says Clifford. “I’m a bit of a prophet.”
Africa is second only to Asia regarding the highest number of mobile subscriptions. And it is not finished yet.