For many rural Africans, owning a cellphone is not financially viable

"WE CALL IT virtual telephony," says , sales director for Movius SA, speaking about the concept of bringing telephony services to those without it in Africa. He says telephony penetration in Africa is still dismally low in parts.

"There are a number of reasons why people might not have a service. The reasons might be that they can`t afford to own a phone, or there isn`t coverage in the area where they live. In Africa, it could be as fundamental as not being able to access electricity to charge phone batteries."

The concept began in 2002 when, after installing a messaging system in Lesotho, the local operator realised there`s over a million people in the country, and only 100 000 can afford phones. "How do we reach the rest?" the operator asked.


Virtual telephony, Minnaar explains, is a platform allowing users to make calls and access voice messages (or "voicegrams") via any phone.

"[The user] buys a telephone number from the in-country operator offering the service. That phone number is a virtual number, which means it does not exist on the network. So it`s a switched number on the network without any network presence," he elaborates. This number is linked to an integrated prepaid account on the platform.

So with this virtual number, the user goes to a public phone or a friend`s phone and logs in to the platform. "Very much like you would go to the Internet and log in from any computer with your account," he says.

The user then authenticates themselves and the platform identifies to them they have been authenticated successfully. They are now logged on to the platform.

Once logged in, the user is able to receive messages and, using prepaid airtime, make outbound calls.

"The platform plays them a prompt, in their own language, which tells them how much money they have in their account. It also enables all their friends, family, business associates to leave messages for them."

When friends or family phone the virtual number, they hear a personalised greeting asking them to leave a message, which the owner of the number can retrieve from the platform at a later stage, similar to voicemail.


Minnaar emphasises the importance of not speaking to a machine, but rather the user`s own personal greeting. "In Africa people don`t speak to machines. They hate machines."

Minnaar says the next best thing to live communications is a recording. "In the old days, people used to send cassette tapes to each other... Because you can hear how the person is feeling, hear them tell a story, you can hear emotion in their voice, inflection in the voice."

With Africa`s strong oral storytelling tradition, Minnaar says voice is important on the continent. "That`s what Africa is all about. It`s all about voice."

The company is currently piloting the platform in Africa, and Minnaar has high hopes. "We expect to see an enormous success... There`s no reason why everybody shouldn`t be connected through this technology. It`s so cost-effective."

And how is the service doing locally? "The service is not yet available in SA but there are operators that have expressed interest in this market, and that are actively investigating participation."

Tags: Leadership