Now feeling better after a crappy bout of malaria, I’m getting the chance to revisit a couple of posts that got left behind, like this one from Mali as I was trying to make my way back from Dogon Country to Bamako. Given that the bus was a fail, the only plausible option seemed to be hitchhiking. Amazingly, it worked out quite well in the end and through a series of private cars, my wife and I managed to get to Bamako in probably half the time of the bus. Never thought I’d be hitchhiking across Africa in my 30s.
It was the segment from Djenné to Ségou that was the most interesting though, due to it being a fellow in a Caterpillar company truck picking us up. All along I thought that these guys were just roving salesmen for the equipment. In the US and Europe, I only know them as makers of kick ass heavy machinery that someday I would love to own one of everything they make. But no, in Mali, as well as Côte d’Ivoire and many other countries I’d assume, they’re doing what it is that the US does best these days in providing services. In these case, they provide technicians to service the generators that they build. I assume that they give a steep discount on the machinery if the customer agrees to the service given that that is where all the money is now.
Anyways, this fellow worked for this contracting arm and while he didn’t know the specifics of mobile broadcasts systems in Mali, he knew what it took to keep them running for Orange. His daily job consists of driving massive distances around the country to make sure that the generators for the mobile towers stay fully functional. We happened to encounter him as he was heading in to Ségou for some new parts, but usually he stays way out east.

What is the normal antenna tower deployment?
In places where there is decently regular electricity, there is only one backup generator. In places that are more remote or where there is never electricity, there are two.
How often do they get maintenance? What are the usual problems?
They get regular maintenance every month. The dust is the biggest problem. It coats the machinery and all the moving parts, so they have to be cleaned quite thoroughly. Actual breakdowns are quite rare as the machinery can handle the environment, as long as it is maintained.
How long can a tower run on only generator power?
Three months. Each tower with two generators has a 5,000L tank of fuel. The generators take shifts running with each rotating out every six hours to properly cool down and rest. They can run for three months uninterrupted, but since we visit them each month, the places without power run constantly.
How dense are the tower distributions, such as in Mopti or Timbuktu?
In Mopti [approx. 100,000 people, densely populated] there are two towers. In Timbuktu [a few more than 100,000, but more spread out] there are six towers. In Bamako and other towns, I don’t know offhand because I don’t service them.

And from there we chatted about the weather and other things until he dropped us off and we were picked up by some other kind souls to cart us the rest of the way to Bamako. That last bit about deployment was quite interesting to me as it shows that where they can somehow get away with it, the mobile operators will run the bare minimum amount of towers they can to maximize profits. Sure, voice quality is worth spit, but signal exists in theory and so does their coverage even if you can’t make a call or send an SMS. Again, proof that despite this being the “fastest growing mobile market in the world” there are all kinds of problems with mobile in Africa that fall vastly short of what those outside the continent are promising it can deliver. Definitely one of the more interesting random rides I’ve had.
Conversations with a Mali mobile field technician