Why wired telephony in Africa is such a basket case

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.


Photo by max_thinks_sees, on Flickr.

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.

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33 Responses to Why wired telephony in Africa is such a basket case

  1. mohamed says:

    I bought three of these in the mountains of Kwa-Zulu Natal and didn’t even think for a moment about where the wire came from…

    I can’t believe I didn’t put two and two together!

  2. Omar Basawad says:

    Very similar to poaching wild animals! Individual need for most of those living within/near the game reserves/parks, force them in to assisting poachers!

    But stealing phone lines, that is some thing new! Still, I do admire the Zulu imbenge baskets!

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  4. John says:

    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.

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  6. Jim Horn says:

    Same problem in Indonesia. In 1992 I joined a small engineering firm that designed the telephone system (ARTS) for them as a fixed wireless design for just that reason. People are people…

  7. jjt says:

    Go Cellular

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  9. Rich says:

    It’s almost like there’s a big difference in the amount of money per capita that the telcos invest compared to the income of the individuals in these areas. As if they were building this infrastructure only to serve a few really wealthy people in the area and that the people whose main income is, what would be considered where I was born, a neat thing for retired people to do can’t really take any meaningful advantage of the phone lines themselves… but that can’t be.

    Oddly though, I was just talking today about how a friend of mine (stateside) whose dad worked for the local bell (this is in the 80s early nineties or so when I was in middle school) would make really nice bracelets, necklaces out of those wires, just by wrapping the striped ones around a central core (if you take care to get a good loop for closing) they look pretty sweet. I turned some people on to it when I started getting into the sort of job where one puts ends on cat5 cable a lot.

    You can make a lot of neat stuff with that… too bad there is no doubt in my mind that the privileged world throws away enough cat5 stranded cable per day to match the amount that’s stolen from these telcos.

  10. Rich says:

    the ‘snark’ tag i juveniley put after the “… that can’t be” was eaten by your vicious anti-evil less-than/greater-than sign remover…
    this would’ve worked I bet…
    >/snark<

  11. Rich says:

    >_< if you were nice you would delete post nine which shows how tired I am. it’s <> darn it… keep up the good work.

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  13. jean warner says:

    I have long suspected that those wonderful copper bracelets and necklaces yone can buy on any Nairobi street corner for practially nothing come from the same “supply.”

  14. galvo guy says:

    cut and runs are popular in inner city neighborhoods such as areas of the bronx and brooklyn, here they sell the wire for scrap, it was weird chasing down a trouble and coming to the cut end .

  15. This is why I believe thinking about hand crafts in terms of fair trade is so important. While purchasing hand crafts bolsters economies, when the items are part of a fair trade network, each participant in the trade process commits to trace the source of the materials, the conditions artisans are living and working in, the needs of the community (addressing the existance of phone lines but the inaccessability of phones, for example), up through the moment of purchase. We should all think about the source of “recycled” materials, remember who is complicit in creating the need to pilfer (including the comsumer), and commit to trace the relationship between artisan and consumer. I recommend fair trade relationships as a way to begin.

  16. No need to worry about theft, the vast majority of these Zulu baskets are now made from virgin, i.e. newly purchased wire. Some of the bare copper is recycled from old transformers, but most of that is also purchased from manufacturers.

    Stolen communications wire is usually turned into quick money as scrap metal. Burning the plastic off is a serious health hazard.

    There are truly recycled wire baskets coming out of Zimbabwe. These are made free-form, using traditional Ndebele basketry techniques. The wire comes from office refurbishments.

    The Zulu versions are made over a ‘form’ [= mould] and thus are more ‘perfect’ in shape.

  17. African Investor says:

    Africa has to learn to respect everybody’s property. We waste so much money trying to fix infrastructure and to create hospitals, schools ad nauseum. All to be in the long term a waste of effort, because the simplest regard for the person next to you simply does not exist. The thieves don’t get that the telephone lines are used not just for iddle chatter but for communicating vital data, may it be medical or otherwise. There is already a low amount of functional infrastructure. Unless there is a change of heart in the african people, what we call morality and principle then we are all wasting our time. I certainly feel that way and am in the process of helping develop a free hospital in Ghana. I don’t have an ounce of altruistic love left, but the need far outweighs my cynicism and scepticism. We pour infinite or near infinite amount of money to watch it being gobbled up by idiotic self centred leaders and administrators that could not care an iota about anyone. Real shame because the people who need it don’t see it. The worse thing is that the engine for economic improvement, the business people are nothing more than crooks. Ocassionally there is an enlightened soul that wants to do right, but he is drowned by a sea of criminals and worthless people. Those who can study overseas do not return to rebuild. We have pointless concerts to fund impossible froth and bubble dreams. Without a revival from the heart we have no chance of creating a working economy in most of Africa, even in places like Ghana or Nigeria where there are natural resources in Abundance. Africa is not a basket case it chooses to be a basket case. We are encouraging the rot with misguided foreign aid. Unless the people want righteousness and justice we in the west are wasting our time. I know I am. I will none the less continue and return to my high tech desk in a high tech city and dream dreams that will never materialise.

  18. I run an organisation that works with Zulu artisans, including some that make the telephone wire. This art form has moved beyond mere recycling. The wire we use is made especially for us, in the colours we want. Most of the time it does not even have copper in but steel. Copper has become too expensive.

    If you buy these baskets from a reputable dealer you can rest assured that the wire was not stolen. In fact, you will more than likely be helping to support an artisan make an honest living.

  19. Nii says:

    It’s become an epidemic in Egypt today. We’re not living there now but our family is there and every two months or so the phone lines are stolen and the village is without service for a week or more.

  20. Abdullah says:

    I deal with these people who sell these baskets in KZN and all of them BUY their wire, they do not steal it. The wire that is stolen is sold to scrap metal dealers. Do not accuse peolpe if you do not know the facts.

  21. doodles says:

    My family and I operate a fair trade, non-profit called Bridge for Africa and we work with MANY crafters in KZN, South Africa. We personally know many of the telephone wire weaving groups in KZN and all of them purchase their telephone wire. Bridge for African’s goal is to provide a sustainable living income for these crafters and false information like this makes it much, much harder to help those who need it most. You can read about Bridge for Africa’s telephone wire weaving group and see photo of the purchased telephone wire spools by visiting:

    https://www.bridgeforafrica.org/catalog/zulu.php

  22. Gibela says:

    The unique artform of wire baskets have developed to such a degree that it has increased job opportunities in the form of companies now manufacturing the wire specifically for the art form
    No longer is copper wired use for community projects as its to expensive. Normal steel wire is used.
    So a good guideline is when its copper coated with platic think twice befor buying EXCEPT in the case of clear coated coper wire.

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  24. ron says:

    There are a number of crafter groups making telephine wire baskets from new telephone wire and there is not question of theft. We hope to begin importing them soon as they are really amazing!

  25. NYC says:

    That is just amazing. Hopefully the networks will move to wireless in time to stem the loss of revenue from theft.

  26. Andy says:

    the basic crux of the matter are the corrupt heads of state, and greedy politians. aid/money goes in, nothing comes out. oh, except the presidents wife puts in an order for this years model mercades convertable, and the blackmarket sells some more AK47’s.
    i agree with comment 17 whole heartedly. and if you think some effing baskets are really amazing, i suggest you pull your head out of your arse and have a look at the real world.

  27. Ravilyn Sanders says:

    It is not a third world problem. Right here in USA, in the state of Hawaii, large sections of its only highway are dark because thieves have stolen the copper wire from the light poles. AT least it was when I visited it last May 2008.

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  29. Jenifer says:

    Here (in Uruguay), we have the same problem: people steal copper cables, but they do it to sell it to dealers…who sale the cables to the same companies that brings the telephone and electricity services!!!

    That’s business for both parts because dealers make money, and the companies too because you need to pay them to restore the service, and they buy cables cheaper than new ones.

  30. D Arment says:

    I could agree that in the past, wire was stolen, but I think you will find that in the modern marketplace, most of the wire is purchased directly from suppliers and given to the weavers. Most of the commercially available wire-work is not made from stolen wire. This is a myth that is perpetuated by certain South Africans.

  31. Bill says:

    We are working with some local crafters in Johannesburg and are looking for a supplier for colored plastic coated wire. If any of you that posted previously about such wire would be so kind as to email me the contact information for a South African supplier, preferably in the Johannesburg area, it would be greatly appreciated. Even if you havent posted previously but know where we can buy the wire please help us out!

    First post had a typo in the body and website.

  32. Worldesigns says:

    Worldesigns has a large selection of telephone wire baskets and plates made by the Zulus of South Africa:
    http://www.worldesigns.com

    The modern baskets are made with wire specifically created for crafting, rather than reusing the old telephone wire, which used water soluable dyes so that technicians could locate leaks in a cable. For our telephone wire items, the weavers are provided with the wire by individuals who market their product.

    Worldesigns is in the process of helping several collectives of South African telephone wire weavers to become financially independent. Many members or family members are HIV positive and live in desperate rural poverty. Often grandparents are raising grandchildren, their own children having died from AIDS related illness.

    Each piece is a unique, usable, exquisite art piece. Collective members specialize in their own unique weaving styles, allowing Worldesigns to offer a variety of shapes, techniques, plates, bowls, baskets, and art masterpieces. Custom volume and wholesale orders are our specialty and our landed stock is possibly the largest inventory in the U.S. We have also participated in prominent high-profile art exhibitions.

    It is our hope that this unique (survival) art form will find a broader audience. Our long term goal is to improve the standard of living of families to improve the quality of their homes, and provide education and medical help for their families.

    Every purchase provides an amazing gift and helps others across the globe. Simply amazing.

  33. Dear Sir/Madam,

    We are an organization based in Harare with the aim to promote the Shona Art where we are the bridge that connects artists to the clients! As we browsed through your website, we realized that the African arts you are selling would be a good combination for the hand-carved shona stone pieces and batik products that we offer!

    Each one is hand-carved by a Shona artist, and we thought it would be wonderful asking you to consider marketing these beautiful art pieces, knowing that the artists are working in very primitive conditions this will be an opportunity to make them benefit out of their talents!

    Attached are our standard stone catalog and few batik images..

    Please feel free to contact us for further details etc..!

    Kind regards,

    Denny & Tendai Simon
    No. 1 Adylinn Road
    Marlborough, Harare
    Tel: 00 263 4 309 800-11
    Fax: 00 263 4 309 835
    Mobile: 00 263 912 498 583
    Skype: denny.simon1

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