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Airtel or TNM?

February 5, 2014

When it comes to telecommunications in Malawi, the key is redundancy. It is common for people to have more than one cell phone. Sometimes I see people juggling three or four phones. And sometimes I watch them try to manage to check all of them as one beeps, the other rings, and the person is talking on the third phone.

There are really only two major cellular phone providers in Malawi: Airtel and TNM. There are some smaller network providers, but the lion’s share of the market is held by these two companies. Usually the tariffs within the network (e.g. Airtel to Airtel call or SMS) are much cheaper than calling out of the network. That’s why a lot of people have one Airtel number and one TNM number. Some people then also have a different number, say for their business. Or they have a number on one of the smaller network providers. SIM cards are sold everywhere, are cheap, and don’t require anymore more than a hundred kwacha to obtain. Phone numbers do not need to be registered, so people can change phone numbers like changing socks. This also contributes to problems like fraud and theft since all phone numbers are essentially anonymous.

Journey to dual-SIM awesomeness

I started out in Malawi with just one phone on the Airtel network, since that’s what the EWB WatSan team uses. With all of us on one network, it makes it a little bit cheaper for calls. I also find the network quality and availability for Airtel is higher. Fortunately most of my friends had Airtel numbers, but a few of them were on TNM. This may seem ridiculous, but I kind of ended up picking my friends according to their network preferences. It’s double the price to call or text a TNM number, so I don’t bother. Also, on Airtel if you send 6 text messages, you get 100 free for the rest of the day.

I find it hard enough keeping track of one phone. Two is just too daunting of a task to handle. During my first year in Malawi, I discovered a magical device known as a dual-SIM phone. I’ve never seen one of those before in Canada, since most people only have ONE number. But it’s a hot commodity in countries with a similar cell provider structure as Malawi. I know it’s the case in most countries surrounding Malawi and India, which is where Airtel comes from. During my trip back to Canada, I ordered a dual-SIM phone which was reasonably priced ($120 CAD) and then my world changed completely. For those who are curious about which phone I have, it’s a Samsung Galaxy Y DUOS. Upon arriving in Malawi, I promptly bought a TNM SIM card. I moved to Blantyre and started making friends with people with TNM numbers. No, I wasn’t going around looking for people with TNM phone numbers. It just so happens that a higher percentage of people that I know in Blantyre are on TNM instead of Airtel. In any case, I have saved a lot of kwachas by going the two-phone number route, but with the convenience of not having to use two phones. The way it works with my phone is that you can receive calls and text messages on both networks. The phone has a setting to use one of the numbers for outgoing calls or text messages. Depending on who you need to contact, you can switch which number the phone uses.

New vocabulary

The vast majority of people use pre-paid cell services. They buy scratch cards with some amount of airtime units, load those units onto the phone, and then use it. What was a new thing to me is the concept of bundles. These bundles are pre-purchased services that are usually at a discounted rate from what they usually charge for calling, texting, or internet. All of the units re-loading, checking balances, or buying bundles is done using USSD codes (e.g. *137# to check your balance). Many of the calling bundles become way cheaper after 9pm. For example:

Regular calling tariff: 66 MWK per minute

Daytime bundled tariff: 500 MWK for 15 minutes (33 MWK per minute)

After 9pm bundled tariff: 20 MWK for 2 minutes (10 MWK per minute)

If you use a bundle after 9pm, the rate is less than one-sixth of the regular calling rate. A lot of times, people would wait until after 9pm to talk to someone. One of my friends said something like “I turn off my phone after 9pm because that’s then the Mtolo bundles start and EVERYONE’s trying to call you.”

The way the rate structure works is that it is free to receive incoming calls or text messages. Because of this, I learned a new term known as flashing. It’s calling a number, then hanging up after it rings once so the receiver gets a missed call. When people do this, they expect you to call back because they either don’t have enough airtime units to call, or they are being cheap. Or, based on what one of my friends told me, it is your girlfriend and if you don’t call back she’ll get super angry at you. Apparently it is expected that boyfriends buy airtime for their girlfriends, and on top of that, pay for all the calls with her (hence the flashing regardless of if she has airtime). Sometimes if someone is flashing you and you don’t call back right away, they will flash you again, just to make sure you hear the phone. Sometimes, people are really annoying (err, I mean insistent) and keep flashing you non-stop until you call back or turn off your phone. Or sometimes, after they do that and you call back, wondering if there’s some emergency, they say “just wanted to say hi” and that’s the end of the call.

It’s interesting how the way cell networks are structured have dictated social behaviour.


From → Life

  1. Good to know and interesting but sounds too complicated…

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