From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]


“Some of the most striking pieces of contemporary African art you’ll
find are the colorful Zulu imbenge baskets that are woven from
“recycled” telephone wire. Using the same techniques as were used
to weave reed baskets so tight that they can carry water, these baskets
are boldly colorful, strong, and very popular as souveniers for
travellers in southern Africa. They’re featured in online stores and
celebrated in art books.

The baskets raise an interesting question for those of us who work on
African telecoms. Why the heck is so much telephone wire getting
recycled? Yes, the wired phone network in most African countries is
creaky at best… but most African telcos are working to expand their
networks, not rip them out and upgrade them. What’s going on here?

A story in this week’s Balancing Act, the leading journal of African
telecoms, sheds some light on the story. The article, by Russell
Southwood, is titled “Cable theft – the cancer eating at the heart
of the fixed network” – evidently, some of this recycling activity
is, shall we say, premature. (The link above will go stale in about a
week – try this one after, say, July 10, 2006.)

Throughout the continent, fixed network operators are reporting
significant losses from “vandalism” to their cables, both those
buried beneath the ground and those hanging from poles. Thieves cut
sections of cable to sell for the copper it contains – oddly enough,
one of the worst affected companies is Zamtel, which reports lots of
theft in the “copper belt” region of the country. In Nairobi,
thieves have damaged the fiberoptic trunks, believing (incorrectly)
that those cables had resale value. (I’m waiting for an art movement
based on baskets of fiber that glow…)

These thefts have two costs for telcos – the cost of repairing
infrastructure, and the lost revenue costs from being unable to
delivery calls on lines that have, literally, been cut. Many telcos are
expanding their use of wireless technologies in response – it’s
easier to protect and fence off a mobile phone tower than it is to
protect cables that connect every neighborhood.

(In the seven years that I’ve watched African telecoms closely, over
100m new mobile phone users have come online, while wired networks have
generally grown by single-digit percents per year…)

I’m not accusing the artisans who build the beautiful baskets like
the one pictured above of cutting phonelines for profit – my
understanding is that many Zulu artists began buying phone wire from
suppliers as the art form became more popular – but it strikes me that
the baskets are a powerful symbol of just how difficult it can be to
build community infrastructure in places where there’s so much
individual need.”


“The British Army had the same problem in Egypt in the early ’50s.
Thieves used to dig down and lay a explosive charge (or just cut the
wire) at the start and end of the length they could take. A donkey was
attached to one end and pulled the cable free. Very simple. Army set up
equipment that calculated place where attack was taking place as soon
as first cut. Armed troops were then sent out and ambushed the thieves.
Worked well to reduce the problem but it was never eradicated.”


“For centuries South Africa’s Zulu people have been famous for the
sturdy and beautiful baskets they weave from grasses and palm leaf. The
weaving was so tight that the best ukhamba baskets were actually used
to store beer! Today these baskets are still woven in the countryside,
but the Zulus living in urban area have invented a new kind of basket,
the imbenge basket woven entirely of recycled telephone wire. The
baskets are as bright and colorful as the telephone wire, and very
sturdy. They are also completely washable! In recent years people in
craft cooperatives in the the neighboring nation of Zimbabwe have
developed their own distinct style of telephone wire basket, which we
are also offering here. These baskets are all one-of-a-kind, and our
inventory is constantly changing.”


Cable theft – the cancer eating at the heart of the fixed network

This week Cote d’Ivoire’s Union nationale des entreprises des
télécommunications (UNETEL) called a press conference to protest
against a rash of cable thefts. Vandalism is a constant problem for
Africa’s fixed network operators. Like a cancer, it eats away both at
the physical state of the network but also at traffic revenues and
customer confidence. Usually this problem is generated by people
stealing cables in the hope of reselling the copper obtained. Russell
Southwood looks at the financial impact of this cancer on Africa’s
fixed network operators.

UNETEL’S President . Loukou Kouadio Michel called for security to be
reinforced around telecoms installations. He complained that since the
beginning of the year there had been no less than 19 thefts of buried
copper cable. He made the appeal in order to underline the importance
of not allowing these thefts to compromise the running of the
communications network of the country. He also emphasised that this
kind of  theft endangered investment coming to the country in this
strategic sector that employs more than 10,000 people.

Over 2005 and 2006 a number of companies have begun to quantify the
cost of these thefts:

– In early 2005 Zambian incumbent Zamtel reported that it had lost $1.5
million through acts of vandalism and theft. The most persistent of
these were the loss of both overhead and buried copper cables.
Ironically most of this theft was carried out in the Copperbelt in
Kitwe and Chingola where primary cables were repeatedly cut. The
shut-downs caused by the thefts caused an estimated $1.7 million loss
of customer revenues.

– In mid-2005 Tanzania’s incumbent announced that it had lost
$152,380 in the first three months of that year. If vandalism continued
at that rate, it would have lost just under a $1 million by the end of
2005. Again it was able to identify where the majority of incidents
took place, apparently in Kinondoni. The theft of manhole covers over
interconnecting cables cost it $40,000 alone in three months. It did
not attempt to estimate lost revenues.

– In April 2006 Telkom Kenya announced that theft of this kind was
costing it $6.1 million a year and that it was introducing wireless
CDMA phones in part to try and combat the theft of hanging cables. It
claimed that CDMA would be introduced country-wide by September 2008.
Incidents have included its fibre ring in Nairobi being dug up in the
mistaken belief that it was a copper cable and the thieves stealing
part of it anyway.

As far as we know, no privately-owned operator – mobile or fixed –
has identified losses due to thefts of this kind. Base stations tend to
be better protected than fixed networks.

The primary motivation for this kind of theft is people seeking to
raise money from selling copper cables. Similar incidents have occurred
in South Africa leading to widespread system failure.  However, as the
Kenya example shows, there is little or no way of them knowing that
cables are copper and whether fibre has the same resale value. People
in poor areas have long been known to steal power and in Nigeria,
people tap into oil pipelines, often with tragic consequences.

There are few easy solutions to the problem. Greater use of wireless
technologies are both cheaper and remove some of the easier
temptations. However there have been occasional reports of wireless
equipment itself being stolen. But with backhaul infrastructure there
are few ways of either substituting it or indeed protecting it

The difficulty is that as African countries come increasingly to rely
on things that need telephone networks then a solution will need to be
found. The obvious solution is to increase the amount of redundancy in
the networks available. This might be achieved by having more than one
infrastructure provider (particularly in urban areas) with agreed
emergency procedures between operators.

If your company has had problems with theft or vandalism and you
want to share the problem or possible solutions, e-mail us on
info [at] balancingact-africa [dot] com