How to survive the Accra blackouts (and never run out of phone battery again)


Anybody living or working in Accra will be all too used to that word. City-wide power outages of 36 hours-plus are becoming the norm in Ghana’s coastal capital, as the African country battles a severe energy crisis.

While businesses are often cited as the ones most badly affected by the blackouts, Accra’s citizens can claim that the power cuts are hitting them a lot closer to home. How exactly, they might ask, can we keep our smartphones charged with such an unreliable energy supply?

They might take heart in knowing that when high-tech fails the most primitive form of technologies can often come to the rescue. Namely, this:

Today, pockets across Accra are bulging with clunky devices called ‘power bank phones’. These meaty cuboids are increasingly being taken up by residents fed up with running out of battery on their modern power-hungry mobile devices.

The obscure phones are a throwback to early-90s era mobile handsets, in terms of both their size and their awful eye-catching design. Nobody seems to know who released the first official handset, with many enthusiasts simply referring to it as the ‘big black phone’, or even the ‘army phone’ – a nod to its most-common packaging adorned with a pattern of military camouflage.

The key feature of the power bank phone is just that – it comes with a power bank attached to the back. Power banks are small(ish) rechargeable batteries that can be used to power up small electronics like MP3 players and smartphones while on the move.

Cottoning on to the advantages of owning a phone-cum-power bank (and paying a relatively cheap price for the privilege), many Ghanaians are now using the monolithic mobiles to power up their smartphones during power cuts. Blackout? What blackout?

Power bank purveyors are the beneficiaries of a word of mouth sensation that has taken over Accra in recent months. Emmanuel Quartey, marketing and communications fellow at Accra’s Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology Incubators, explained how the phone became so popular so quickly.

“The phone definitely benefits from its funky form factor,” he wrote. “It stands out and invites conversation. ‘What is that thing? I keep seeing it around.’ ‘What does it do?’ ‘Oh cool. How much is it?'”

Quartey also mused on the reason for the distinctive hook shape at the top of the phone, writing:

“Some people believe it to be the antenna for the radio, while another friend was certain it was a handle to hold up the phone so that, paired with it’s LED light/flashlight, it could be used as a makeshift lightbulb (again, ideal during our current power crisis).”

A few of the big black phone’s other notable features:

  • Costs between 100 and 150 Ghana Cedis (about 25 to 38 USD)
  • Can hold up to 3 SIM Cards
  • Has built-in FM radio
  • Comes with Facebook and WhatsApp pre-installed
  • Doubles as a power bank to charge small electronics
  • LED flashlight

So, while you may confound power outages and never run out of battery again, the question remains: do you really want to be hauling this chunk of plastic around all the time?

If power means that much to you – go for it.

Images via Emmanuel Quartey

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