When the guns fell silent in Sierra Leone's 10-year-long civil war, few would have thought that the next big thing would be mobile phones.
The decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone witnessed some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. Less well known was the destruction and burning down of communications equipment by rebels – damage whose long-term implications only became clear when the civil war ended three years ago.
During the war, the national telecommunications company, Sierratel, lost most of its equipment and offices – looted or burnt to cinders by armed fighters – both in the capital Freetown and the provincial towns of Bo, Kenema and Makeni.
Today, Sierratel is faced with the mammoth task of resuming services – a task that is expected to cost millions of leones. So far, it has managed to restore the land-based telephone services in Freetown, Bo and Kenema. But the northern provincial headquarters of Makeni is still cut off.
But where the public sector is huffing and puffing, private companies are catching up. Three Western multinational companies have swiftly moved in to fill this vacuum, offering mobile phone services and sparking a craze for handsets in this West African nation.
These days the very sight of the ubiquitous mobile phone in Sierra Leone's urban centres seems to bring relief – and signal normalcy – to a war-weary people. And in its wake business has boomed.
Transactions have become almost instantaneous, as businesses are able to ditch the chaotic service offered by the wrecked Sierratel. Already, more than 100,000 people own mobile phones, according to the three multinationals – the British-Dutch company Celtel, the Swiss-owned Millicom and the British-based Mobitel.
However, the growth of the mobile telecommunications industry is not without problems – there is a distinct lack of rural coverage, for instance, which is something common to many developing countries. But there's one problem in particular that may prove to be a public relations disaster for the multinationals – it's to do with the fact that they charge in dollars.
It may make business sense for mobile phone operators, who have to minimise their risks in new markets, to charge for handsets, SIM packs and top-up cards in dollars. But, experts say, it also puts this potentially vital business and development tool way beyond the means of the average person in a poor and debt-ridden country.
Particularly unimpressed with mobile telephone operators is member of parliament Alex Koroma, who, as chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Transport and Communications, plans to table a motion to highlight what he calls "the negative impact mobile phones have in the socio-economic development of the country".
Koroma says that charging in dollars means that prices would rise whenever the dollar rose against the leone – already the leone has slipped 60 per cent over its dollar exchange six months ago. Currently a dollar fetches 2,700 leones. A worried Koroma is urging the government to set up an independent telecommunications commission to regulate the activities of communications companies operating in Sierra Leone.
Koroma told Panos Features he wants the regulator to clearly identify and lay down a system of checks and balances for mobile phone companies. "It is an open policy of government for mobile phone companies to be established in the country," Koroma said, but added: "People are grumbling about the high cost of top up cards."
The proposed regulator will not only address the issue of people having to pay in dollars, but also the high costs, Korma said. The cheapest handset in the market costs about $70, a SIM pack about $20 and top-up fees a minimum of three dollars – astronomical amounts in a country where most people survive on less than a dollar a day.
On January 6 the Bank of Sierra Leone – the central bank – issued a public notice reminding the general public that all transactions for payment in Sierra Leone should be made in the leone. In support of the move, a local non-governmental organisation, Campaign For Good Governance, called on the Bank to "put stringent measures in place in order to enforce this Act".
The mobile phone industry cites economics to defend its position.
Wayne Taylor, commercial manager of Celtel, which has now decided to do away with dollar transactions, said the reason mobile phone companies charge in dollars is that "everything is being imported into this country" – there is simply nothing that these companies are manufacturing in Sierra Leone. In other words, the companies need to make up in dollars what they spend in dollars.
But critics argue that multinational companies should either set up local manufacturing units or try and source locally-produced goods so that some of their profits can be ploughed back into poor countries.
Taylor said Celtel pays more than three billion leones (about $1.25 million) in taxes every year. He said Celtel, one of the largest private investors in Sierra Leone, has injected $30 million into the economy since the end of the war – significant amounts in this country.
But such arguments do not convince everyone in Freetown. Dr Alusine Fofanaha, a member of parliament belonging to the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party, said: "The mobile companies have contributed towards the downfall of our economy."
Although communications play an important role in the socio-economic development of countries, he said, if mobile phone companies continue to charge in dollars, "such development will never take place, as the majority of the people cannot afford to have them." The practice, Dr Fofanaha said, runs against the government's economic policies.
Nevertheless, the craze for mobile phones is today a reality in Sierra Leone. Handsets have replaced guns as the new must-haves and the trend is slowly beginning to spread to rural areas. As Mama Fatmata, a fish-seller in the beach-front village of Tombo, tells you: "I can now not only do business with ease and speed, but also call my relatives abroad whenever I want to."
She may not be an engineer or IT specialist, but with her mobile phone acting both as a business tool and a handy status symbol, Mama Fatmata can now directly contact her buyers – mostly Lebanese retailers – cutting out middlemen.
And in the provincial town of Makeni, where the government-owned Sierratel is struggling to rebuild its damaged infrastructure, impatient customers are gritting their teeth and switching to mobile phones, hoping the cost of connecting to the world outside will come down one day.
Bai-Bai Sesay is a journalist working for the Independent Observer newspaper in Freetown.