Godfrey Mutabazi, the Executive Director of Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), has decided to ban the use of scratch cards. But the anticipated coming into force of this directive in a week’s time spells doom for the mobile telephone and with it the many advantages that it brought to the vast Ugandan population.
In my village in Gomba, I witnessed the consequences of banning the scratch cards. When I run out of airtime, I decided as usual, to go to the nearest shop to top up with just UGX2000, which is what I usually top up. To my surprise, the shopkeeper informed me he never stocks it because it is too expensive for his usual village customers. He told me that he does not have airtime of 2K because the wholesale place where he buys it from no longer brings it.
I then decided to ask for airtime of UGX 500 which I know he usually stocks has in plenty because it is what his village customers can afford. He replied he did not have it either, because it had become scarce.
He advised me that unless I go to a Mobile Money agent to get “Easy Load”, I was doomed because no one in the entire village or even in the neighboring villages had airtime cards. He told me that unless I went to Bulo a small town nearly five kilometers away, I would not get airtime. To go to Bulo meant that I had to have UGX3K for bodaboda transport.
In another sign of things to come, I missed to attend the burial of one of my relatives in our village this week simply because those who could have called to inform me, had no means of obtaining airtime because those ends shops no longer sell airtime and neither do the villagers have mobile money on their phones to purchase airtime.
Up until now it had not dawned on me of how the Mobile telephone is soon going to become a luxury; only for those privileged few, like it had been many years ago when Celtel (now Airtel) was the only operator in the country. Back then, Celtel abused its monopoly by charging in dollars. When MTN came to Uganda, they started charging in shillings and in a short time, they became a huge attraction. It reminded me that very soon the Mobile phones owned by villagers will become just historical relics; objects that would remind the villagers that they once used to communicate with Kampalans, just by the snap of a button.
What is going to happen is that the simple villagers only know how to use the scratch cards. They do not have Mobile Money in their cell phones to load airtime. They only have the luxury of Mobile Money if somebody from Kampala sends it to them. For this particular shopkeeper, whom I went to, the system of Easy Load is too complicated for him and his simple village customers to grasp.
In fact, even here in Kampala, most people in the suburbs do not know how to use the Easy Load method, preferring to leave it to the Mobile Money agents to do it for them. Also, most people do not have Mobile Money in their cell phones most of the time and even those who have it do not know how to use their phones to load airtime preferring to ask friends to do it for them.
From the unfolding events, it is clear that UCC took things for granted and didn’t sensitize their customers adequately. Or is it a deliberate attempt by the powers that be to make villagers stop using mobile telephones. Is there something deeper than what meets the eye?