Esther Nsapu, GPJ Democratic Republic of Congo
 
Business

In DRC, Electrical Shortage Powers Demand for Cellphone Charging Shops

 

Article Highlights

Democratic Republic of Congo

In North Kivu, a conflict zone with limited infrastructure, most households have no access to electricity. Because many residents need cellphones to stay in touch with family and work, they rely on generator-powered shops that charge cellphones and other digital devices.

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – A King Max generator hums at the entrance to Charge Téléphone Dieu Est Bon, Franck Mushingi’s small shop on Sake Road in the Carmel neighborhood of Goma, a large city in eastern DRC.

Inside the shop, the name of which translates as “God is Good Phone Charging,” radio batteries, a few computers and dozens of cellphones line the counter waiting to be charged.

The dusty shelves along the left wall are heavy with cables and cords coming out of electrical outlets, hungry for phones to charge.

Every day, dozens of customers leave their phones at Mushingi’s shop to charge because their homes often lack electricity.

Like many entrepreneurs, Mushingi says he was inspired by a pressing need in his community – power.

Just four of Goma’s 18 neighborhoods have consistent access to power, according to the National Electricity Company. (DRC residents call the utility SNEL, the acronym of its French name, La Société Nationale d’Électricité.)

Mushingi, a father of three and a graduate student in management at the University of Cepromad in Goma, decided to open a generator-powered shop to help his neighbors keep their phones charged.

“My shop plays a crucial role in my community,” he says. “Among other things, it provides the poorest people in my neighborhood with a chance to not miss important work-related or family calls because of power. That’s why we provide charging services at lower prices – to enable everyone to have their phone charged.”

Mushingi charges 100 francs (11 cents) to charge a phone for a maximum of two hours. He earns about 84,000 francs (90 dollars) a week charging cellphones.

Most citizens of DRC live in poverty, by international standards. As of 2012, the nation’s per capita income was $220 a year, one of the world’s lowest, according to the World Bank.

In Goma, a conflict-prone city with limited infrastructure, cellphones can be lifelines. They connect people to family, job opportunities, mobile banking and even political participation.

But unable to charge phones in their homes, mobile users here rely on generator-powered shops like Mushingi’s.

Power outages are common in Goma, a city with limited infrastructure that relies on a far-off and aging electricity supply. Just 20 percent of Goma’s neighborhoods – the ones that house hospitals and government offices – have consistent access to electricity, according to SNEL.

Goma, a city in DRC’s North Kivu province, does not have its own power supply. It receives its electricity via high-tension cable from Bukavu, a city 221 kilometers (137 miles) away in the South Kivu province.

But that power source isn’t consistent. Dirt and debris collect at a retention pond near the power source in Bukavu, interfering with electrical transmission, according to SNEL. The company must cut power to the Goma substation every morning to clear the debris.

Furthermore, the Goma substation has only a 40-megawatt capacity – not enough to serve the power needs of Goma’s more than 2 million residents.

While electricity is scarce, the cellphone market is booming here.

As of 2013, 42 percent of people in DRC had mobile phone subscriptions, according to the World Bank. That’s despite the fact that just 55 percent of DRC residents live in areas covered by cellphone networks.

Many Congolese citizens who lack home access to electricity and water nonetheless own cellphones, according to a World Bank Institute report.

Mobile usage in big cities like Goma is much higher than in rural areas. Eighty percent of adults in Goma own cellphones, according to a 2014 study by Target SARL, a Kinshasa-based marketing consultancy. Many people own multiple phones to ensure that one is charged at all times, Mushingi says.

There were 41 million active cellphone connections in DRC, a country of over 70 million people, as of December 2014, according to GSMA Intelligence, a mobile operator data analysis firm. And 98 percent of those connections were prepaid plans, meaning consumers are buying low-cost phones and purchasing minutes in increments as low as 925 francs ($1).

Starting his business was a challenge, Mushingi says.

“Some people did not trust me with their phones at first,” he says.

And, at the beginning, there were some mix-ups.

“They gave me a phone that was not mine,” says Mamissa Alimasi, a young resident of the neighborhood. “They had confused it with someone else’s phone. That is something I was not willing to accept.”

Mushingi and his younger sister, who manages the shop with him, have designed a system to prevent confusion of that sort, he says. Now, when a customer drops off a phone, the shop writes the customer’s name on two numbered pieces of paper – one that is taped on the phone and one to be kept by the customer.

The shop has had no cases of theft or loss since it implemented the new system, Mushingi says. He has gained the trust of his clients.

“As time has gone by, residents realize we do a good job and work in their interest,” he says.

Now, residents come from all over the city to Charge Téléphone Dieu Est Bon, saying they know the shop’s generator will be working and their phones will get charged.

“Sometimes my phone was shut off for two days due to lack of electricity,” says Samuel Mbavumoja, a frequent customer. “As a result, I miss out on many opportunities. But thanks to Mushingi, I am online every day.”

Mbavumoja wakes up earlier these days to avoid the queue that now forms in front of Charge Téléphone Dieu Est Bon each day.

“When I want to charge my phone, I always leave it in Mushingi’s hands because I am confident that he will return it charged,” customer Neema Namushukuru says.

The shop’s generator uses about 7 liters (1.8 gallons) a day, Mushingi says. Despite the fuel cost, the business is profitable because the city’s inadequate electricity system keeps demand high.

“I am able to pay the rent for my shop on time,” he says. “I pay school fees for my children. And I take care of my family. My shop enables me to earn money every day.”

Goma’s overtaxed power system cannot meet the needs of residents, says Léon Muheto, director of SNEL in North Kivu. On average, there is an energy deficit of 84 percent, he says. There is no quick fix to the city’s limited electrical infrastructure.

“The most beautiful girl in the world cannot give any more than what she has,” he says, meaning SNEL is unable to supply electricity to the entire city.

The utility prioritizes the delivery of the limited power it purchases from Bukavu, Muheto says.

“We give preference to the hospitals and the water authority to supply water to the people on a permanent basis,” he says.

An electricity improvement plan is in the works for Goma and the rest of North Kivu, Muheto says. If plans continue moving forward, a new hydroelectric plant could be providing electricity to North Kivu by late 2015.

In the meantime, the people must help each other, Mushingi says.

He is mentoring young people from other parts of North Kivu who hope to operate cellphone charging shops of their own.

GPJ translator Ndayaho Sylvestre translated this article from French. Interviews were translated from Swahili and French.