In 1999, Kenyans who wanted a new mobile phone line needed a minimum Sh54,700 connection fee. This included a Sh10,000 refundable deposit the subscriber would get if they terminated their contract and the rest would be credited as airtime on their new line.
That was just to cover the cost of the new line. For those without a mobile handset, a brick-sized black, cream or grey Motorola DynaTAC was the favoured pick. A brand new one would set you back some Sh300,000.
Walking around with a mobile phone during this time meant you could afford upwards of Sh350,000 (Sh530,000 in today’s value) for the convenience of communicating on the go.
This was in 1999 and for many, checking e-mail meant going to a cybercafe and metallic telephone booths stood at various street junctions for those who needed to make a call and could not rely on a friend’s or relation’s office phone. Only 300,000 Kenyans boasted a connection to a fixed line service and it was still a few months before Safaricom was officially granted the licence to operate the second mobile phone service in Kenya.
In 1998 and at just 24 years old, Moses Ngugi was one of these early subscribers who obtained an Extelcom line and soon after moved to Safaricom.
“I was a medical student at the University of Nairobi and I wanted to get a mobile phone because of the convenience it offered and at the time it was trendy to have one,” he recalls.
Mr Ngugi’s father was also ailing at the time and he wanted his family back in Gatundu to reach him anytime, regardless of his busy schedule at the medical school and at the Kenyatta National Hospital.
At this time, getting a line meant placing an application that included a certificate of good conduct from the Kenya Police, a receipt from your phone vendor as well as a copy of a permit indicating the vendor was certified by the State to sell the mobile phone.
“Very few people had a phone and people thought I was the son of a minister or politician and you would be followed around town if you were seen with one,” he recalls.
At one time, Mr Ngugi made the news on television following an altercation with the City Council of Nairobi officers who were towing his car while he was on the phone.
Still, in these first months, the connection and maintenance fees proved prohibitive for the majority of Kenyans and most of the early adapters were high-ranking civil servants or managers and businessmen.
The mobile phone was a status symbol and few had them.
Joseph Musyoki remembers the first line and mobile phone he purchased at an eye watering Sh200,000 back in 1998 as he worked to build his new valuing business in Nairobi.
“At the time it was mandatory that you pay Sh20,000 as advance payment for airtime and the Nokia with a small aerial cost me Sh80,000,” recalls Mr Musyoki. “The balance went to your account, which you would use as airtime.”
“The mobile phone was a status symbol and few people had them,” he says. “I remember going to private members clubs and people used to put their phones on the table. These phones later came to cost Sh1,000.”
On October 23, 2000, Safaricom officially launched its services in a colourful party at the Carnivore grounds in Nairobi. That year, 20,000 subscribers signed up for new Safaricom lines.
One of them was Jane Mutagia whose job as a manager in one of the leading private companies saw her qualify for a new line from the company.
“At the time it was quite expensive to own and operate a new line. I was lucky to be given one with my employer. When I left the job, I retained it as my personal line,” she remembers.
Ms Mutagia says she gradually moved from using her landline to primarily using her new Safaricom line.
“We were moving from the fixed line regime, which was full of inefficiencies like delays in service requests and often the general notion was that you had to know someone at the Kenya Post and Telecommunication Corporation to have your complaint sorted out,” she recalls.
“Safaricom’s offering was reliable because you felt the service provider was accessible when you needed them and when other services like M-Pesa and mobile data became available, I was happy to sign up,” she recalls.
“People started calling my mobile phone even when I was at home or in the office with a landline and with time, the landline stopped ringing altogether,” she recalls.
That year, the number of mobile lines overtook landlines for the first time and mobile service providers knew they were on the cusp of a communications revolution.
In January 2001, the much-feared Millennium Bug, a global glitch that was expected to reset all computers and throw societies in turmoil, proved to be a hoax. This resulted in a renewed faith in technology the world over and the cautious scepticism that had greeted mobile phones also dissipated.
Safaricom cut the price of new SIM cards to Sh2,500, introduced per-second billing, Simu ya Jamii service and the dedicated ‘100’ customer care line.
These served to bring mobile phones closer to the general population and for the first time, mobile phones stopped being a preserve of the wealthy and the butt of stereotypical jokes but rather a necessity that was becoming cheaper by the day.
“Some people looked at you with admiration when your mobile phone rang in public and you could always feel like people around you are eavesdropping trying to figure out who you are,” recalls Mr Ngugi.
Often, his friends and neighbours would come to his house or business premises to ask to use his mobile phone.
He says the last two decades has brought a revolution in mobile communication in Kenya that he feels fortunate to have experienced first hand.
“It is really mind blowing to think back at where we have come from and what smartphones are able to do today,” says Mr Ngugi.
Mr Musyoki says he has remained loyal to Safaricom over the past 20 years and adopting the company’s growing range of business solutions.
This story was first published in the Nation Africa and is part of the Safaricom@20 celebrations. For 20 years, Safaricom has developed new technologies and innovations to support and enable Kenyans to communicate, connect and to go beyond.