Looking around, it seems that all but the most deprived people in Mozambique have access to a mobile phone. A lady selling tomatoes and onions in the market will keep hers in her bra or tucked into her capolana waist knot. A man carting wood for charcoal or clay bricks will have a battered phone on a string round his neck. The cool and trendy carry a phone in their hand at all times, like an extension of their arm.
But the trade describes only a 36% “population penetration” in this country, or 6.5 million subscribers.
A new no frills phone costs 1,000 meticais (around £20), and a second hand one goes for less than half that. Pre-paid credit, that most people use, starts at about 20p, and there are multifarious time limited packages for phones and computer dongles. Calls are quite pricey, but texts are cheap. Only long established businesses or offices have fixed line phone numbers, others use mobile.
There are two mobile phone giants in the country that are fighting it out for supremacy. A third is said to be on the horizon. Mcel, state owned, now with a 65% market share, started as a monopoly in 1997. That’s the yellow giant.
More than ten years later South African Vodacom, that also has operations in Lesotho, Tanzania and DRC, joined the yellow giant in Mozambique, and now has 35% of the market share. This year it decided to change its image from blue to red, to match that of its UK “parent company” Vodafone. That’s the red giant.
The ubiquitous yellow and red giants seem flush with money, though Vodacom is said to have been operating at a loss. They sponsor TV and other media and cultural programmes, non-government organisations and good works, and fight it out in the mass media and streets for any kind of extra promotion and visibility.
Every street corner in every town has young guys, with or without yellow or red tabards, selling recharge cards day and night for a tiny commission – less than 1 metical (2p) for a 100 meticais (c. £2.20) recharge card.
These guys (no girls) join endless queues to get their supply of recharge cards from the always packed Mcel and Vodacom shops.
At some stage Mcel decided to offer people free pots of yellow paint (good quality) to paint their buildings, on condition its logo appeared on their walls.
No problem, both householders and shops went for this freeby, so there are many dazzling bright yellow houses and shops dotted around in the most unlikely spots in town and countryside.
Not to be outdone, and to confirm its image move to red, it seems Vodacom offered even larger quantities of red paint for the same purpose, and Chimoio where I live is full of red buildings – shops, bars, kiosks, even private homes.
However, for Vodacom it looks like there’s some competition with Coca Cola… which also uses large amounts of red in its publicity….
Mcel and Vodacom are probably the names that only a rare Mozambican will not have heard of. Subliminal advertising, part of the landscape everywhere you go. I’m shocked at the tastelessness and shamelessness of some of it. For example, a wall in Beira several km long that separates the ocean road from the beach, is covered with Vodacom’s crude red… I wonder who got paid for that one?
In some cases the warfare is blatant, though Vodacom’s red seems to have the upper hand in Chimoio for now. But sometimes there is no brand loyalty, and the re-sellers have both kinds of recharge cards in their wallets.
When the Mcel service dropped for a couple of days recently, there were grovelling apologies on national TV and Radio Mozambique, and interviews with stressed people who said they´d had to put their lives on hold for the duration. Others immediately went and bought the rival Vodacom sim card so life could continue uninterrupted. Still others (like me) just shrugged and put it in the same category as the power cuts, internet suspension and other shortages that are part of daily life here.
I’m wondering what the mobile giants’ next tactic will be when a third rival enters the fray to attempt further “population penetration”. There may be a shortage of walls and buildings to paint another colour in Chimoio, but in Maputo there must be a few more blocks of flats that could do with a fresh lick of advertising paint on one or both sides….