March 2009

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On misunderstood directions

Traffic around Cotonou, Benin port
Image via Wikipedia

Me: I want to go to the airport.
Zem: That’ll be 500 francs.
Me: What?!? 300 francs.
Zem: No problem! 400!
Me: 300 or go away.
Zem: No. problem!

We take off in a vaguely wrong direction. 5 minutes later, I ask him “Are we going in the right direction?”

Zem: Of course!
Me: The airport’s in the other direction! We have to cross the highway first.
Zem: No problem! We’ll cross in just a minute.
Me: Are you *sure* this is the quickest way to the airport?
Zem: No problem! No problem!

We reach the highway, and we’re definitely not getting any closer to the airport. In fact, a suspicion dawns on me as we approach the Mosquée Centrale.

Me: The airport’s on the other side of town! Where are we going?
Zem: What are you talking about? We’re almost there.
Me: What?!?! (I realize what’s going on.) AIRPORT. With PLANES. Not PORT with BOATS.
Zem: Planes?
Me: Planes that fly not boats that float. I want to go where planes land and take off.
Zem: Not boats?
The AIRport, not the REGULAR port.
Zem: Planes are at the airport?
Me: You don’t speak French, do you?
Zem: No problem!
Me: Do you speak Fon? (Fon is the predominant language in the South, particularly Cotonou.)
Zem: No problem!
Me: The airport is THAT way. Let’s go.
Zem: You know airport with planes?
Me: Just go where I tell you.
Zem: No problem! On y va!

On connectivity in Benin

I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for Benin Telecoms! A conversation with Jon Gosier on Twitter a few weeks ago revealed that in Uganda, he pays literally 10 times as much a month as we do, for the same connection. Can you imagine paying $600 a month for less than 256kb/s? Neither can I.


I’m constantly frustrated by how slowly internet infrastructure develops in Benin, but at the end of the day, a pro-active government has forced a lot of positive changes in the last few years.

logo_kanakooInternet for the common man

CDMA connections for everyone! Cheap handsets combined with a vast CDMA network means that anyone and everyone can have a (relatively) cheap internet connection. And I do mean everyone. Even in the most remote villages, if you have a usb powered phone and a computer, you can connect to the internet. Users don’t even need to go through the two year process of getting a landline anymore.

CDMA connections are supposed to be 115kb/s, but generally clock in between 9.6 and 36, depending on location and time of day. They also come with a “land line” phone number.  A technician told us yesterday that Benin Telecoms recently bumped Kanakoo to 230kbps, but I’ve yet to see evidence that these connections are any faster.

A few of the newspapers we work with use Kanakoo, but if you’re in Cotonou, there are alternatives that cost about the same.  It’s better than nothing, but not yet useful for more than checking email and Google searches.

Internet for those with pull

DSL is affordable for just about everyone these days, as long as you have a land line and live near an exchange with the necessary capacity

DSL connectoins range from 128kb/s to 2Mb/s, however, even in Cotonou, there are zones (like ours), where the local exchanges just don’t hack it. And of course, it can be a two year wait for a landline.

isocelWireless solutions

WiFi has been opened up to private investors, although the state ISP has no offerings. The customer service sucks and installation is a hassle, but it’s affordable. Unfortunately, the service is curently available only in Cotonou and the environs, however, there are plans to expand the service in the future.

WiFi connections range from 128kb/s to 2Mb/s, including a special “nights and weekends only” package, which is probably the cheapest way to get connected in Benin right now. The biggest complaint I hear is that users never know when their connection is actually going to work. For the cheaper packages, it seems to be 50/50 on whether they’ll actually be able to work on a given day.  Also, their customer service is poo; however, that’s systematic in the sector, and probably unfair to pin uniquely on them.

WiMax connections are offered by the state ISP as an alternative to DSL, and is the service that we use here at the house. Installation is a particularly expensive hassle, but once you’re installed, the connection actally works most of the time. As I told @jongos, the connection is super fast at night. During the day, it works most of the time, but tends to the sluggish. Occasionally (okay, about half the time), the connection is unusable between 9am and 9pm.

WiMax is offered at 256kb/s. At night, it actually runs that quickly. During the day, we tend to see 9.6 to 128. Oh well. WiMax is available in and around Cotonou, as well as Porto Novo.

logo_mtn1The future of connectivity in Benin

Recently, the government has put pressure on GSM companies to offer internet connections, and they have! While not blazing fast, they’re more than serviceable. As the services are relatively new, they don’t work in all parts of the country. I’m hopeful that GSM will be the key to real connectivity here in Benin.

Slowly but surely, things are changing. Day-to-day, it’s a constant battle with our ISP to get problems fixed, but overall, we have a working internet connection. We can do training sessions at home, instead of in cybercafes. We can check email all day long. And, believe it or not, the most important thing is that we have acecss to the power of Google 24/7.