Vodafone advertising huts, Burkina Faso (2011-12)

Call me


Doing it the smart way

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love my smart phone. However, before the trip I had decided that Africa wasn’t the right continent for a device with a touch screen and a battery that could barely survive for one day. I had also decided that getting a travel SIM would connect me to friends and family regardless of where I was.

How wrong I was!

The European cities were easy: my travel SIM worked fine; I had internet cafés at every corner, and orientation was easy with signs aplenty and maps available.

Morocco was already a different story. All of a sudden there weren’t very many street signs anymore. Especially not in the narrow streets of the medinas we visited. Also finding a working internet café became a lot harder. But at least my phone was working and I could make calls and send texts.

Until we entered Mauritania. Even though STA Travel boldly claims the SIM would work in 185 countries only few of them seem to be on the African continent.

So there I was without phone or internet and always on the verge of getting lost. On the upside I had a clock, a GPS, a compass and a light in one nifty device. And the battery would last for eight or nine days.
I saw that all the locals owned phones. Some of them quite nice smart phones, some old Nokias that had probably had a life somewhere up North before. The mobile phone revolution was real!

I saw my fellow travellers on the truck with their iPhones. They were sending pictures to their friends on Facebook, were up-to-date on global news and always knew the correct exchange rate when we entered a new country. The only issue they were facing was how to charge the phone. Some opted to turn it off for most of the day while others had extra batteries or a solar charger.

By Cape Town I could go on no longer. That is: go on without a phone. The cheapest smart phone I could find was a Samsung Young for 150 Euros including prepaid SIM and some credit from Vodafone.

Buying a SIM was without issue in all nine countries going North. SIMs were available in many stores or from street vendors. All I needed was my passport, sometimes a photo, to get registered. Registration might be necessary to use data services. In almost all countries you will find three or four larger providers, most of which operate in several countries (most notably Vodacom and Airtel). Ethiopia is one of the few exceptions: the state-owned Ethio Telecom is still the only provider. And here you have to make sure that you buy a data service enabled SIM if you want to use the internet on your phone.

If you have to deal with local service providers – drivers, guides, guest houses,… – you will find that they often don’t even bother to write down an international number. Which means you have to call them. Roaming is expensive in Africa. Sometimes you need someone to get back to you. A local number is the only way.

Having a local SIM also helped cutting internet costs: the SIM usually costs about one dollar and often even comes with credit. Prepaid credit can be obtained at every corner. To use the internet you should buy bundles. Bundles are either good for a certain period (a day, a week, a month) or a volume. In Tanzania, for example, I paid less than twenty dollars for SIM, some phoning and 500 MB worth of data. If your phone has a tethering option you can even hook the data connection up to your laptop and save on extra internet fees for your computer.

As prepaid numbers usually expire when you don’t use them for more than three months it makes sense to swap them with travellers going the opposite direction. Just be mindful that if you have registered with your passport you want to be able to trust your fellow traveller that they won’t do anything silly with your SIM…


If you need any more reason to get a smart phone look at the multitude of lifesaving apps. My recommendations are all for Android but I am sure you will find iOS equivalents:

  • If I had to choose only one app it would be Google Maps. You can see where to go and find places that aren’t on any printed maps and certainly don’t have web sites. Even more importantly you can see where you are and navigate to your destination. Plus: I like to find hotels and guest houses via Maps. Many of these places won’t have a website and are not featured on platforms like Tripadvisor; but anyone can add them to Maps.
  • In addition to Maps I also like to record the places I have been. Especially when you’re bush camping recording your GPS coordinates will help you remember where you’ve been. I like GPS Simple. The app allows you to send a link of where you are anywhere. It also includes a compass.
  • When you travel multiple countries you need a good currency converter. Often times  the only way to change money is with informal money changers. Know what you are bargaining for by checking the official rate first. My app of choice is made by Oanda.
  • Skype or any kind of VoIP might not work with your data bundles. But I like to use Facebook to let my friends know how I feel in the moment (nothing over getting them jealous with a pic of you with a cold drink at the beach…) or message with them.

Last not least: get a solar charger and protect your gear! If you don’t use them in a rain or sand storm and keep them in a pouch when you don’t use them smart phones are just right for Africa.

Today’s title is brought to you by Aretha Franklin:

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