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Technology In West Africa

What does the technology landscape looks like in West Africa? How is internet connectivity? Do people use Facebook and Google?

Internet connectivity has really soared in the last few years. I can get 3G in most major cities and 4G exists in a handful of places, or at least is advertised as existing.

Even just a few years ago, reporters needed to carry a BGAN, a portable satellite modem the size of a hardcover novel. I rarely take one. When I arrive in a new city, I always buy a SIM card with a data plan. But pretty much any cafe or restaurant will hand you a Wi-Fi password if you ask for it, and even small hotels in out-of-the-way places seem to manage to rig some kind of Wi-Fi system. One hotel in Maradi, Niger, about 400 miles outside the capital, had routers taped to the ceiling all over the hallways.

What kind of role does tech play in many of these developing African countries?

A lot of people in more-rural areas cannot afford TVs, and even if they can, in many areas electricity is highly unreliable, so mobile phones are a major source of news.

Phone credit is expensive and calls across providers cost extra. Some people have created an ingenious system called “flashing” — they call you and hang up so you dial them back and pick up the tab. I thought I was getting prank calls before I caught on.

WhatsApp groups are the new water cooler conversations where gossip and public announcements are shared via groups. West Africans move around a lot, so WhatsApp allows them a free way to stay in touch with family members living in other countries.

Mobile money — using a mobile phone to transfer payments — is also mainstream in many places and is a lifesaver for people who don’t have the option of bank transfers.

What tech is most important for you to do your job there?

Internet connectivity, by whatever means possible. Phone networks are often so bad that I make most of my calls using WhatsApp. People are really into it, so sources are more inclined to respond to messages on that platform than emails or regular phone calls. Business people and aid workers like Skype.

My iPhone saves me every day because I’m constantly moving around so I need an all-in-one device to access social networks, email, text, take photos, and use WhatsApp and my recording app. I recently dropped my phone in a toilet in Nigeria but managed to grab it quickly enough to salvage the hours of recordings I’d done with war victims before the device finally died. The nearest Apple store is thousands of miles away, and it was a company phone, so replacing it was stressful and involved stops in three continents.

How do you overcome connectivity issues?

Both cell and internet networks can be elusive, but they work well enough that when they don’t, I’m emotionally crushed or, more often, maddeningly annoyed.

I usually can’t stream video or download big files anywhere but in major cities, and even that is a challenge sometimes. The networks get really crowded, especially at night. WhatsApp and Skype calls are wonderful and clear but cut out a lot. Just dialing phone numbers sometimes takes five or six tries to get a clear line. It’s frustrating explaining to colleagues in New York that if they can’t reach me on the first try, just keep dialing and eventually they’ll get through.

Technology has really been pivotal in exposing abuse by authorities in West Africa in much the same way that it has in America. Videos of police abuse posted to YouTube and other social media in a number of nations have caused public outrage and, in some cases, led to firings of officers. In some countries, protesters and voters have used social media to organize during elections or social uprisings.

Governments have responded by cutting off internet access and shutting down mobile networks. In Cameroon earlier this year, people got around an internet blackout by typing up messages on phones and paying someone to haul them out of the blackout area and hit send.