If you go to the smallest village in Malawi, you will no doubt find a “Top Up Here” sign for Zain, one of eastern Africa’s leading mobile phone networks that extends throughout multiple countries.

As my friend Brendan put it, “Mobile adoption in Sub-Saharan Africa is occurring at staggering rates.” He wrote an excellent post on this powerful market here.

I’m more interested in their distribution channels. You may not be able to get 1,000 unit top up cards (the maximum) at every shop in Malawi, but even the most rural areas will have 50 unit vouchers and a brightly colored sign to go along with them.

I believe Zain and other mobile phone networks are so wide spread because they focus on a sector that everyone values: communication. The value that different people place on material goods is always subjective, but communication devices are almost always at the top of the list. Human interaction and being connected to our friends and family is irreplaceable regardless of culture.

So the demand is certainly there. Zain has responded by increasing their distribution channels like an spider’s web. Their scratch card vouchers are small, cheap, and easy to transport, and their advertising is catchy. Anyone can be a distributor, and so their distributors are numerous. Everyone can be their customer, and so their customers are numerous.

I want to know how they do it. Do their distributors find them, or did they seek them out? Who gets the fancy free-standing placards and who gets the cheap plastic signs? Do they restock the villages, or do they make people come to a centralized location? How do they keep tabs on everyone, or do they not even bother?

Mobile phone providers have done what few other technologies have – they created a widespread distribution network that reaches almost every corner of Africa.

This is the distribution network that other appropriate technologies need to tap into.

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