As almost any article on the global digital technology scene makes it clear, mobile phones are everywhere in Africa. People in Uganda will even tell you something more: having one mobile phone is great, but it is cheaper to have two.

When Celtel (now Airtel) brought mobile phones to Uganda during the 1990s, they could charge what they wanted without fear of losing customers: they were the only mobile provider in the country. However, with the arrival of the South African giant MTN, in 1998, things began to change for consumers.

After MTN, Mango (now Uganda Telecom) followed suit, then Warid telecom, Orange, and now, K2 Telecom.

Late arrivals like Orange and Warid offered low rates to lure existing mobile subscribers to their networks in an overly price-sensitive market. Warid, for example, introduced a popular promotion called “Paka-last,” loosely translated as “till late,” that made airtime virtually unlimited: for just $0.39, you could talk to other Warid customers for 24 hours. It’s a clever strategy: most Ugandan users want to be on the network that offers the lowest rates, and they will find every means to switch to that network, no matter what.

However, switching networks in Uganda isn’t like switching networks in the USA or Europe: you can’t “port” your phone number from one network to another, and if you have friends who use Airtel, it’s far more expensive to call them from an Orange number.

In recent years, a huge influx of cheap mobile phones have offered a way out. Like users in many developing countries, Ugandans have resorted to buying two phones, spending more up-front to take advantage of savings over time: one phone holds the SIM card of the incumbent network, and the other holds the new or “cheap” network.

When mobile operators noticed this trend, they introduced cheap multi-SIM card phones to make it even easier for users to migrate to their networks. These Duo or tri SIM card feature phones (as opposed to smart phones) like ZTE-G R211 go for less than $15. Multi-SIM card phones give users the ability to juggle between various networks depending on whom they wish to call, saving a lot of money on calling costs.

For people who can afford smartphones, like myself, there’s another reason to own more than one handset. Not to save on call charges — although that comes as a happy coincidence — but to extend battery life, whether you’re on the go in the city, or traveling upcountry, to rural areas without electricity.

We now expect our phones to take photos, play music, stream videos, and provide access to Twitter and Facebook on power hungry networks like 3G and 4G LTE. The phone still plays its single most important role — communication — in this case I mean voice communication through normal GSM calls. This very vital role has, unfortunately, been compromised by tonnes of features that often leave our smartphones on an energy drip within a matter of hours.

As such, because battery technology hasn’t caught up with the pace of mobile technology (amidst hopes that it will one day), mobile users have to find alternatives to keep themselves in touch with friends and family. Secondary batteries, portable battery chargers, and USB connections to computers all fit the bill.

However, the most popular option in Uganda is for users to carry a second feature phone with incredible battery life. I myself own a Nokia Lumia 820 and a dual SIM ZTE-G R211 from Orange that boasts a battery life of up to four days! With it, should my smartphone battery run out, which it often does, my contacts can still reach me on my second line.

Whether to save power or save money, everyone here has a reason for a second mobile phone.


Editor's note: This article was first published in 2013.

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