mobile phone/email in ethiopia?
March 6, 2008 7:00 AM   Subscribe

i have a friend who is going to ethiopia for 3 months. her flight leaves in a week or maybe 10 days and she will be living in the capitol, Addis Ababa. from what i understand she will be working (volunteering) at a school somewhere outside the city. how can she most easily (tech-wise) and cost effectively stay connected to her friends and family in the states (plus probably iran) via mobile phone and email while there?

and yes, calling cards may work, but she specifically wants to have a mobile phone while there - for emergencies or even for when it might be particularly useful to have one.

should she get her phone (and/or service) here in the states? or in ethiopia?

ive tried some obvious google searches, but couldnt come away with enough knowledge to give my friend any helpful information (not regarding mobile phones, anyway).

she has mobile service here with at&t, and sorry i dont know the details, but she says she spoke with them and it is way way expensive to use them in ethiopia.

also, she would like to have email/internet access somehow. she will be taking her laptop, though i havent much idea how available net access will be. google seems to suggest that there are plenty of net cafes and whatnot. is this correct? is it pretty easy to find one? are there neighborhoods or shopping centers that might be more likely to have them? (she will likely be taking taxis around the city, unless she finds some way to rent a car.)

my friend is a lady in her 50s. she is not at all tech savvy, and any option she uses would have to pretty much work already, without her having to fiddle with it much at all, other than perhaps a simple activation or something.

so again, if my explanation was a little muddy:

1. should my friend obtain mobile phone service before she leaves or when she gets there? and from whom? and

2. tips/suggestions on locating/using internet cafes in Addis Ababa, and will having her (xp or vista) laptop simplify internet access for her?

ok, thanks!
posted by gcat to Travel & Transportation around Ethiopia (6 answers total)
1. I'd lean towards "no." I moved to Africa last year and was trying to figure out whether to buy a phone in the states or not too. Phones in Africa operate on a different type of technology than phones in the states do, so in order to get a phone that would actually work over here, she would need to buy what's usually called an "unlocked" phone, which you usually can't get at a Best Buy (et. al.), but can find in the states at private cell shops, etc.. I found one for about $100 US before leaving the states, but a friend already in Africa advised me that I could get one here for about $60 US. That will be your most basic phone, w/o a service agreement, which she won't want as she's only here 3 months. I can't speak to Ethiopia specifically, but I would imagine at least in Addis Ababa it wouldn't be that hard to find a cell phone on a pay-as-you-go plan. She probably doesn't even need an unlocked phone if she'll only be in Ethiopia, she can just ask for their most basic pay-as-you-go phone. Then you just buy ("top-up") minutes at any local retailers (newsstand, grocer, gas station, etc.) Pretty simple, just make sure she goes with a major local provider (MTN is big here in Africa, but I'm not sure what the best local one is in Ethiopia - you can just ask around at the airport if the signage doesn't hit you in the face.

2. There's probably plenty of net cafe options, but like the pay-as-you-go cell, the only way to go with your own, dedicated service that you don't have to sign up for a plan is to get a pay-as-you-go 3G card. It operates on a SIM card (cheap little chip that you buy from the cell company you end up going with - you need one of these for the cell phone too), and similar to the cell you buy MBs / GBs for the card, like you buy minutes for the phone. Works anywhere that the cell network gives you reception. I've used this in a number of countries in Africa, but again, can't speak to Ethiopia specifically.

My general advice to your friend would be to figure things out when she gets here. Infrastructure, etc. is behind the states, but its easy enough to stay connected. Be aware though, for calling home, she'll want to have phone cards or a Skype account worked out ahead of time.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:42 AM on March 6, 2008

I worked for an NGO in Ethiopia before returning to Canada in 2007. I still work for them, and do a lot of travel there.

1. There are hundreds of internet cafes in Addis, she'll be tripping over herself finding them. Two places which I loved were:
- an internet cafe on the 3rd or 4th floor of the Friendship Shopping Centre on Bole Road.
- Kaldi's Coffee (Ethiopian Starbucks) on Bole Tele (different that Bole Road) is connected to a shopping centre with a internet cafe.

2. There is only one wifi cafe in the whole country - in Addis Ababa. It's called City Cafe (again on Bole Road, near Ethio-China Road and a flashy Ethiopian Orthodox Church). A very upscale mainly-foreigners coffee place.

3. Ethiopian Telecommunications Commissions (ETC) is government owned, and controls the mobile network there. SIM cards overseas doesn't work, and for most of 2007 it was hard to get a Ethiopian cellphone/number because the government hoarded them in hopes of increasing the price for the Millennium. That even happened in September 2007, so it should be easier now (I returned in August), but it's a slow process. In June/July 2007 ETC was down for 5 weeks due to severe flooding, so she should be aware it's not very reliable.

4. She should try to use the mini-buses in Addis - the bus station is under Bole Bridge near the Airport. I rarely used taxis there.

5. It sounds like she's going to northern Ethiopia. Is she teaching in Debre Berhan/Debre Sina? If so, I can tell her what living in that area is like.

My advice:
The country is in the midst of building a broadband system after being dialup only. However, she should not expect to connect her laptop online, but instead type up her emails on MSWord or whatever and put them on USB key and send them via internet cafe. To read emails I received, I copy and pasted them into MSWord, and put them on my USB key to read on my laptop when I got home from the internet cafe.

I hope this helps. If you have any questions, just ask.
posted by carabiner at 7:45 AM on March 6, 2008

My husband (Ethio) says that you can get a phone with sim card capabilities that will work there, but they do have pay as you go plans. Service is spotty though, be warned.

She will be able to get access, again - reliability is something entirely different. Having a laptop is definitely a plus per my husband.
posted by heartquake at 7:50 AM on March 6, 2008

She should just buy a phone once she gets there -- it will be cheaper, reasonably nice (I bought the cheapest Nokia I could find in Malawi for $50 and it was way better than my shite phone here), and very easy to work on the local pay-as-you-go system, which I'm sure will be much cheaper than whatever AT&T can offer. She can just walk into any electronics/communications store in Addis and be ready to roll with a new phone in five minutes. Very easy.
posted by bluenausea at 7:53 AM on March 6, 2008

A friend of mine just got back after living in Addis for about 1.5 years. He had a lot to say on the subject. Here's his blog. Feel free to browse it to find specifics!
posted by Stewriffic at 8:38 AM on March 6, 2008

Response by poster:
sorry, i was out of the house all day yesterday and went right to bed when i got home.

but hey you guys rock!!

sounds like the verdict is that she should wait until shes there to get her phone, and that the cafes should be fairly plentiful.

very helpful info. and thanks for the tips, carabiner! i just need to help her understand the concept of a USB drive - and get one for her.

everyones input was helpful, thank you.
posted by gcat at 4:33 PM on March 7, 2008

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