Fiona Dragstra – Connecting in Times of Power Cuts

Ouagadougou, April 2015

La realite Africaine or c’est la vie are phrases often heard when the power falls short in Ouagadougou. The issue of access to power, energy, and plugs prove to be a new little dimension to connecting and communicating in my research, which I had not thought off beforehand. It is not so much that it bothers me in my work, or that people are strongly affected by it, but it does have its effects on people’s mobility, their connectivity and their ability to communicate. It hinders it, sometimes, for those who do not have the money to buy a gene
rator or for those who do not have four cell phones. Imagine having a smartphone, with which you have to follow several Facebook groups, share stories with your friends, engage in discussion, and run your business, and call your wife, colleagues, and friends for a beer at night. After a long day of connecting and communicating, you come home to a house without power, with no option to recharge your phone. Problem… Now what? The government shuts of power in phases and per quartiers, making it efficient, probably? However, you never know when the next power cut will hit your quartier, making planning next to impossible. Next to that, I have not encountered power cuts as frequent as these in any African country so far. Every day, or every two days, whole quartiers, the houses without generators that is, lose power during most parts of the day or night. This makes having multiple mobile phones and multiple Sim cards even more valuable, for when one loses its battery.

During Easter break, we had power for two full days, day and night. The government made sure everybody had power during Easter, because it is a national holiday, and everybody would be free and at home or at their families. During these festive days, power cuts would ruin the fun, and therefore the government bought power from Cote d’Ivoire for these two days. (Through Facebook, I later learned that the Ghanaian government did the same, but on Burkina Faso was no news, as usual). After Easter, the power cuts restarted their indecisive moments of shut-down.   Next to these controlled power cuts, Burkinabés try to find solutions in (green), cheap (!) and more efficient energy: the sun. However, as overheard at a dinner table in Gounghin in Ouagadougou, there seem to be issues with French companies and the government that make the buying and installation of solar panels nearly impossible. The prices are absurd, even for rich Burkinabés. Because of this, most people are unable to use their most valuable and most present asset for energy, and they are dependent on the government for their energy. This lack of government efficiency and influence of the French on their choices for energy exploitation makes that the Burkinabé lose their trust in the ability of their government. Moreover, they started to hate the French even more. However, they do find their own solutions around these two bodies of regulations.

As strongly as the Burkina government-in-transition at these moments of connectivity is felDSC01605t, as absent they are in everything else concerning ICT. In the development of, and the business surrounding ICTs such as mobile phones and internet connection, the government hardly has a share. The Burkinabés, the French and the Chinese fix everything. Portables are imported by the Chinese and the French, with brands such as ‘wiko’ and a remake of a remake of a Huawei – brand-less, but with the ability to add two or sometimes three Sim cards. Phones are as old as the oldest Nokia and as new as the newest Samsung, but I have not yet seen a single Iphone. I guess Apple has not discovered West Africa as a potential market yet. I bet Apple wouldn’t last a day here, since Burkinabés know exactly which phone works best for which purpose. Easy to break, expensive smartphones are not part of their equation. Efficient, strong and powerful mobile phones are what they need, no fancy labels or trends. That’s why they often have four instead of one.

Having multiple mobile phones and/or multiple Sim cards is essential for Burkinabés. When one of the country’s three phone networks is weaker than the other, or when one of their phones loses power because there was no power for some days, they use their other Sim or other phone. In this way, they are always available, and ready to share their stories, news, calls to action and photos of the latest Smockey concerts. Although it may sometimes be a bump in a dusty road, no government mess or French interference can mess with the will and the need of the Burkinabés to be connected, and to be part of online communities, as much as they are part of them offline.

By Fiona Dragstra – currently doing fieldwork in Burkina Faso on the influence of ICT use on individual and collective political agency