The Kariakoo Market: Mobile Phone Repair Workers and the Shrinking Planet

A blog post by Graduate Research Assistant Iago Bojczuk.

On the second day of the Social IT Solutions Workshop (SITS) at the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT), GMTaC lab members Han Su, Rachel Thompson, Prof. Lisa Parks, and I had the chance to visit the Kariakoo market. This extensive market spans several blocks of Dar es Salaam’s Ilala District and is known not only for being a major contributor to the city’s economy, but also a place where one can find all kinds of technologies: from solar panels to cables to smartphones.

Although we had busy mornings with classes and workshop planning, we also prioritized exploring the nearby districts and communities to learn more about people’s usage of information and media technologies. One of the most interesting explorations we had was the day we visited the Kariakoo market. Upon arrival, I was very impressed to see the number of mobile phone repair workers and how they harmoniously worked together as a conglomerate of colorful tents, wooden and metals desks as well as all kinds of mechanical/electrical tools.

Aerial view of the Kariakoo Market

Known in Swahili as Fundi Simu, these workers are frequently clustered in desks next to each other covered by tents. Based on our lab’s ongoing research with the mobile phone repair workers in Dar es Salaam, we decided to identify a technical solution to support their everyday repair work. We designed a prototype of a portable and secure desk for the mobile phone repair workers, which we named Fundi Simu, and Rachel Thompson, Han Su, and I presented it to students to demonstrate the human-centered design process and offer an example for students to consider as they worked in groups to create their own social IT solutions.     

With the help of Dr. Joseph Matiko from DIT in translating and contextualizing the conversations with the mobile phone repair workers, I was immediately drawn to the variety of services available: from smartphone software troubleshooting to lithium battery welding. Most workers we talked to did not have fixed prices for specific services, meaning it was common to hear people negotiating repair prices.

At first, I was confused about how those mobile phone repair workers were able to successfully compete in the market since there were so many of them clustered together offering similar services. On a more sociocultural level, however, it was very interesting to observe the sense of community that prevails among workers in that space — at least three times I saw a worker going from one table to another asking for material supplies or tools, if not already sharing them with one another.

On one occasion one of the workers told us that he had learned his welding techniques from a more experienced person that is known as “the engineer.” In terms of infrastructure, I also observed that many of them shared electrical cables that energized their tables, computers, fans, and portable welding machines.

As we moved to an indoor location, we found many specialized stores selling all kinds of phones: from very large Tecno smartphones and tablets with AI-enhanced cameras to very small and basic phones for calling, texting, and radio — or even with flashlights. The region-specific phones designed for urban and rural spaces in sub-Saharan Africa is something that really captured my attention when we visited the Kariakoo market.

Having lived both in the countryside and urban areas in Brazil, I am used to visiting street markets like the one in Kariakoo, where people sell phone cases colored and decorated in all possible ways as well as screen protections for all sizes of smartphones. For instance, there are two well-known places in São Paulo called Rua 25 de Marco and Rua Santa Efigênia that I have been to in the past. These are shopping zones in the central area of Brazil’s largest city. The district in which these two shopping areas are located is often crowded and full of workers selling and fixing technological apparatuses: from cables and cameras to screen protectors and video games.

Rua 25 de Março in Downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Source)

From a media studies and business model perspective, what really intrigued me was to see the way Tecno Mobile, a Chinese mobile phone manufacturer based in Hong Kong that is subsidiary of Transsion Holdings, dominated the streets of Kariakoo. As we explored Dar es Salaam, it was clear to see the influence of Tecno mobile telephones, which I have never really seen in Brazil or any country I have been to. In a recent story that came out on CNN Business, Jenni Marsh writes that in cities like Lagos, Nairobi, and Addis Ababa, “busy streets are awash with the bright blue shop fronts of Transsion’s flagship brand, Tecno.”1 This is very similar to what we found in the Kariakoo market in Dar es Salaam, even though there were also many ads and banners for companies like Samsung and Huawei.

Since its launch in 2006, Tecno’s motto has been “think global, act local,” which means adapting its business models and phone that could potentially meet Africans’ specific needs. Arif Chowdhury, Vice President at from Transsion Holdings, has said  “Africa is always the most important part of our global strategy.” But what are the implications of such glocalization strategy of a Chinese company operating in Africa? According to a report from telecommunications supplier Ericsson, “between now and 2023, mobile subscriptions in the region are predicted to grow by an average of 6% a year to just under 1 billion from 700 million today. Mobile broadband subscriptions are forecast to grow by 16% a year to 880 million by 2023 from 350 million today.”2 These numbers speak directly to the transformations in the digital sector we observed just by visiting the Kariakoo market.

In the case of Africa more broadly, as argued by journalist Abdi Latif Dahir, for governments, “investments from companies like Transsion have meant believing in mobile telephony’s crucial role to kickstart and motivate grassroots innovations. In the world’s youngest continent, there’s the binding belief now that digital technologies can spur economic growth and disrupt industries from finance to food.”3

My reflections on the usage of mobile phones in Tanzania were also impacted by the visit of Beninese-born artist Emo de Medeiros, who came to Dar es Salaam to share some of his work with our students from DIT and the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA). He is a recipient of the Digital Earth Fellowship (the GMTaC Lab is a partner in the Digital Earth Project), which supports artists or designers based in Africa or Asia who are exploring issues of digital materiality.

As an interdisciplinary artist whose work spans across video, sculpture, photography, textile, music and performance art, Emo de Medeiros’ practice is built around the concept of ‘contexture’, which is based on holistic interconnectivity, transculturalism, and creating interactive experiences through the fusion of a wide range of disciplines. Prior to meeting De Medeiros in person in Tanzania, Gabriel de Pereira and I briefly discussed his works Vodunaut and Kaleta/Kaleta in the Major Media Texts graduate seminar taught by Prof. Parks. These two projects in particular were awarded residency by the Goethe-Institut Brasil during the 20th Contemporary Art Festival Sesc_Videobrasil. Gabriel and I linked the discussion of ‘materiality’ to a close-reading of “A Geology of Media” (2015) by  Finnish new media theorist Jussi Parikka.

During the SITS Workshop, de Medeiros  gave a presentation to DIT and SUZA students about Vodunaut and Kaleta/Kaleta. As described on the website of Associacao Cultural Videobrasil website, Vodunaut presents the audience with motorcycle helmets covered with shells and supported on small monitors enable a cross between the country’s mythology, ancestral knowledge and the futuristic imagery of science fiction. In the video installation Kaleta/Kaleta, the artist creates an immersive environment drawing on Kaleta festivity elements, a festivity with local masks that resembles a mixture of Brazilian Carnival and American Halloween, that invites the audience to confront their own personas.4

Interested in the connections between people and technology through an examination of the materiality and humanity of the global and digital world, De Medeiros’ current project The Android’s Passage is related to the GMTaC Lab’s research agenda to investigate the usage of media technologies in urban and rural settings in different parts of the world. As part of his fellowship, De Medeiros intends to deliver a video that illustrates the flow of smartphone from China into Africa. That is, from its very fundamental engineering components manufactured in Shenzhen to its actual sale in Lagos, Nigeria, at the famous Computer Village market. Through such cross-continental technological connectivity, De Medeiros aims to explore the notion of the shrinking planet.

From local market practices to interviews and from human-centered design to art, it was clear to me that mobile phone industry and its users in Tanzania and sub-Saharan Africa, more broadly, deserve more attention and research. All in all, the relevance of the mobile phone and its applications were reflected in the students’ final projects involving IT solutions: youth unemployment and job sharing; reducing wait times in long lines at hospitals and banks; access to prices for fresh produce at markets; emergency services; provision of digital suggestion boxes for government organizations; and urban navigation.

Marsh, Jenni. “The Chinese Phone Giant That Beat Apple to Africa.” CNN. October 11, 2018. Accessed February 02, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/10/tech/tecno-phones-africa/index.html

Adegoke, Yinka. “The Mobile Phone Is Still Changing the Game in Africa.” Quartz. November 12, 2017. Accessed February 02, 2019. https://qz.com/africa/1127274/one-billion-people-in-sub-saharan-africa-will-have-mobile-phones-by-2023/

Dahir, Abdi Latif. “A Low-profile, Chinese Handset Maker Has Taken over Africa’s Mobile Market.” Quartz. January 30, 2019. Accessed February 02, 2019. https://qz.com/africa/1374404/chinas-transsion-dominates-africas-phone-market-with-tecno-itel/

“Associação Cultural Videobrasil.” Ir Para Página Inicial. Accessed February 02, 2019. http://site.videobrasil.org.br/canalvb/video/2209721/Emo_de_Medeiros_20o_Festival