Kenya: the great mobile switch-off.Talk about being cut off. Millions of users of counterfeit mobile phones in Kenya will have their handsets disconnected this week.
There are an estimated 3m fake devices in the Kenyan market – that’s 10 per cent of all active mobile phones. The Communications Committee of Kenya has asked the country’s four mobile operators to make the switch-off on September 30 in an effort to combat illegal trade, security threats and the infringement of intellectual property rights.
Counterfeits are damaging the mobile phone industry all over the world, not just in Kenya. The Mobile Manufacturers Forum’s “Spot a fake phone” campaign estimates that the black market costs the industry billions of dollars every year in sales, warranty claims, network disruption and copyright infringement, as well as damaging brand reputation. The US Department of Commerce said counterfeits represented lost sales of $1.2tn in 2009.
The Communications Commission of Kenya explains the danger that fake phones pose for society more widely:
Counterfeit handsets are not tested and certified for safety. They may, therefore, pose health risks to users as they may emit higher levels of radiation than is recommended.
Though usually cheaper than genuine products, counterfeit handsets are of poor quality and have a very short lifespan.
In some instances, counterfeit handsets come with duplicated IMEI [the International Mobile Equipment Identifier code], which makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies to track down criminals who use mobile handsets to commit crimes.
Kenya’s switch-off was initially scheduled for September 2011 but operators requested additional time for preparation. An awareness campaign has been underway since June, informing the public of the dangers of counterfeit devices.
Handsets without an IMEI code, which identifies and traces mobile phones, will be disconnected on Sunday. This code is found below a device’s battery or by dialing “*#06#”.
A database is being established ahead of the switch-off with mobile phone users texting their IMEI code to 1555 free of charge. Over a third of Kenya’s 29.7m subscribers have sent the information already.
Shivan Bhargava, managing director of Airtel Kenya, told beyondbrics: “We have been pleasantly surprised that a majority of our customers likely to be affected have taken the initiative of replacing their handsets and will therefore not be disconnected when the deadline comes”.
Bhargava notes, however, that the switch-off is affecting low-income groups disproportionately: “The government’s approach should focus on stopping counterfeit handsets from entering the country. Switching off customers hurts the poor consumer who have to invest in the handsets while the people importing them go scot free having made a lot of money selling counterfeit handsets in the country.”
The lower price of counterfeit mobile devices is one reason for their widespread use – these devices can be sold at one third or half of the genuine product’s retail price. Francis Wangusi, director general of the Commission, commented: “We are pleased to note that the mobile operators and equipment manufacturers have already brought in affordable genuine mobile phones to ensure that no one is disconnected on account of inability to afford.”
Nokia’s affordable Asha devices caters for this specific price market with an average retail price around KSh7,700 ($90).
The mobile phone industry is supporting the switch-off in other ways too. Nokia and Samsung have set up collection points across the country to collect disconnected devices for recycling.
A spokesperson from Nokia told beyondbrics: “We’re pleased to be able to provide 100 collection points in Kenya. The initiatives on counterfeiting in Kenya are a model which could be successfully adopted in other countries.”
The impact on telecoms across the country will surely determine whether other countries follow Kenya’s example in tackling counterfeit devices.