News / Africa

Kenya to Pull Plug on Counterfeit Mobile Phones

A man with his phone in hand walks past a window branded in an 'Airtel' logo on May 20, 2011 in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. A man with his phone in hand walks past a window branded in an 'Airtel' logo on May 20, 2011 in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
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A man with his phone in hand walks past a window branded in an 'Airtel' logo on May 20, 2011 in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
A man with his phone in hand walks past a window branded in an 'Airtel' logo on May 20, 2011 in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
Gabe Joselow
Mobile phone subscribers in Kenya may wake up Monday morning to find their phones no longer work, as the nation's telecom companies enact a nation-wide switch-off of all counterfeit devices. Retailers and customers have mixed reactions to the plan, which could affect up to three million mobile phones.

Justus Maluki has come to River Road in downtown Nairobi to look for a new mobile phone, fearing that the model he is currently using may be a fake.

"I was worried about it because it is even Nokia, but it is not from Nokia company, so I didn't believe that it would be alright," said Maluki.  "I sensed that I should get a better phone before it is switched off."

Maluki, like many other Kenyans, is concerned that his phone will be rendered useless Monday following a government order to turn off all counterfeit mobile phones.

Working with the country's mobile operators, the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) has developed a database listing all the legitimate phones in the country.

If your phone's individual identification number, known as an IMEI, is not on the list, it will be deactivated.

Francis Wangusi, Director General of the CCK says security is the country's primary concern, particularly as many Kenyans use their phones to conduct money transfers through programs like M-Pesa.

"One of the things is that we are pre-empting what possibly could happen just in case criminals become smarter, to try an use the invalidity of the IMEI numbers on counterfeit mobile phones to be able to escape the police dragnet in case they have used it for intruding into the M-Pesa system," said Wangusi.

Wangusi also says there may be health risks in using counterfeit phones, which he says emit more radiation than genuine models.

Wangus notes that phone manufacturers have a business interest in removing counterfeits from the market, but says that was not a driving factor in the decision to switch off the fakes.

"They had, like any other companies of course complained about this, even mobile service providers had complained about the factor that optimization of their networks was not achieved because of the [counterfeit] mobile phones," added Wangusi.

Mobile phone companies like Samsung and Nokia support the move, and are providing collection centers for people to turn in their counterfeit models.

But retailers on the street disapprove of the government's plan, saying when they buy phones from wholesalers, they have no way to know whether they are real or fake.

Catherine runs a mobile phone stand in the capital, and says her customers are especially wary of the lesser-known Chinese models that she has been selling.

"Right now every client is complaining, and we don't need China phones, and for me I know that right now there are China phones that are original. So for me, right now, it's really affected, it's really affected," Catherine noted.

Tony Aluda is another retailer in downtown Nairobi, who sells phones from a U.S.-based brand called Zedd.

Aluda feels bad for customers who bought counterfeits from other sellers because it was the only way they could afford the kind of phone they wanted.

"To the customers, to the end users, it's unfair because many times they buy the products out of ignorance, because when they look at the features they want and the money they have they can afford maybe that unregistered phone," Aluda explained.

According to the CCK nearly 30 million Kenyans, three quarters of the population, have mobile phones, which means 10 percent of all subscribers could be affected by the switch off.

Kenya's neighbor Uganda, inspired by the idea, is planning to follow suit with its own plans to cut off counterfeits in November.

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