Archive for May 23rd, 2012

Mobile Phone configuration in Benin

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

As we tried to get our mobile phones to work in Benin, we learned a number of things:

  • New SIM cards need to be activated, by presenting an identification document (e.g. passport) at the office of the provider
  • APN settings are tricky
  • SMS message center settings pushed by the carrier may not work on all phones
  • no 3G coverage in Benin, although MTN won a 3G/4G license in March 2012, so that may change soon.
  • According to a local with a smart phone, Moov is much better than MTN for data.  Unfortunately we learned this after buying a 10000 CFA MTN recharge card, so we have stuck with MTN and have not confirmed this ourselves.
  • 2G data roaming from Bell Canada didn’t work (but did work in Ghana and Togo, at least along the coast), voice roaming worked fine (albeit expensive) and SMS roaming is intermittent.

We activated SIM cards on both MTN and Moov. In hopes of saving someone else the aggravation of figuring this out, here’s how we did it.

MTN Telecommunications

MTN requires you to bring a photocopy and present it outside their main office in Cotonou on Boulevard Steinmetz north of Avenue Clozel. Make a photocopy of your passport before you go to the office. There are photocopy shops just down the side road by the MTN building – I made a copy for 25 CFA with some local help. Write your new mobile number on the photocopy and present it at the table under the shelter outside. They asked for occupation and added it to a pile of other papers – no idea when the activation will occur.

To make Internet work, we used the following APN settings on a Samsung Galaxy S i896 (under Settings -> Wireless and Networks -> Mobile -> APN):

  • APN:
  • Proxy IP:
  • Proxy port: 8080
  • APN Type: Internet + MMS

Other tips:

  • to check your balance dial *124#
  • to recharge, dial *125*XXXXXXXXXXX# where XXXXXXXXX is the voucher number in the scratch off section of the recharge card
  • Recharge cards are available at many streetside stalls in denominations from 500 cfa to 10000 cfa
  • the only way to recharge a prepaid sim in an iPad is to remove it, put it in a SIM carrier, and use an unlocked phone, with the standard *125*XXXXXXXXXXX# code
  • according to the very frustrated Chinese lady at MTN with us yesterday, data is very slow, especially connecting overseas trying to use YouTube and Skype. We tried to explain that this was Africa, and not too surprising. In hindsight we should have suggested trying to find wifi, it might be better. Also, data coverage is limited outside the major cities, and sometimes even inside.  It has been slow but not unusable in our experience, but Wifi is slow too.  Hopefully the new fiber just laid from Europe to Ghana, Cameroon and South Africa will help when it’s lit up.
  • If sending an SMS the first time doesn’t, work, try again, the network may be overloadeded.
  • Data is 200 CFA per MB, or 2500 CFA for 50 MB by dialing *130*3#. Other  amounts are available.


The Moov office is a bit further up Boulevard Steinmetz from MTN. The person doing activations was just inside the door, and the queues for everything were much shorter than at MTN. Once I reached the front of the queue, he did our activation immediately, but that may have been because our SIM had already been disabled. He was also able to correctly configure the Galaxy S APN settings with little difficulty.

  • To make Internet work, we used the following APN settings on a Samsung Galaxy S i896 (under Settings -> Wireless and Networks -> Mobile -> APN):
  • APN: moov
  • Proxy IP: none
  • Proxy port: none
  • User name: moov
  • Password: moov
  • APN Type: Internet + MMS

Other tips:

  • to check your balance dial #100#
  • To add funds, dial *101* followed by the 12 digits of your recharge code, # and then dial
  • Recharge cards are available at many street corner booths as well as mobile sellers
  • Text and voice calling between moov phones is much cheaper than moov to mtn. (e.g. 25 cfa per text vs. 50 cfa)
  • On my basic Nokia phone, I had to rename the message sending profile from ‘moov’ to ‘Profile 1’ before it would send SMS successfully.  This is under Menu – Messages – Message Settings – Sending profile – Moov – Rename sending profile.  The message centre number is +22995950999.  See the Nokia discussion board for more details. OneSIMcard has instructions on how to reset the SMSC for many other phones.

In Ghana, people carry multiple mobile phones, because it is cheaper to call and text people on the same network. With multiple networks, people carry phones that either take multiple SIMs or they carry multiple phones. We suspect the same is true here in Benin, but haven’t validated that yet. This may explain why some African countries have higher mobile penetration rates than Canada, including a few with more mobile subscribers than inhabitants

Wandering about in Cotonou

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Not feeling like getting in another taxi or bus, we decided to spend the day wandering around Cotonou. We needed to find a bank machine to get some cash, and we wanted to pick up a different SIM for my phone in hopes of figuring out why text and Internet were not working. Since we were close to the hotels (Ibis and Novotel) and the conference centre, we decided to try walking there.

For some reason, we feel a lot safer wandering around Cotonou than we did in Accra. There seems to be many less people, so that we aren’t so crowded. The fewer people gives the impression that Benin is more developed than Ghana, but we have been told many times that it isn’t the case. In one area for certain Ghana is more developed, and that is Internet access and speed. The cellular network here only gets 2G (no 3G), and even wired Internet is very slow. Recently Ghana has become an access point for fiber that connects Africa to Europe – it will be a while before that increased speed link makes its way to Benin.

After arriving at the Novotel, we quickly discovered that our credit card did not work in their visa ATM. The ATM was hardwired to select “chequing” as the account, so we couldn’t tell it to use credit. Fortunately, the Ibis hotel is on the same road (same parking lot), and their Ecobank ATM allowed us to remove some cash. We’re guessing that would be true for any Ecobank ATM, but haven’t tested that theory.

With money in hand, we decided to try out the local form of transport, the Zemi-John – a motorcycle taxi. Note that there are few car taxis in Cotonou, so almost all public transport is via zem or foot. Occasionally we saw more than one passenger on a zem, but that gets extremely crowded and uncomfortable.

Looking at our guidebook, we decided to go to the Marché Ganhi (a market area in downtown Cotonou). After leaving the gates of the hotel, a couple of guys on motorcycles offered us a ride. They weren’t wearing the yellow jerseys of the official zem drivers, and probably had an arrangement with the hotel security. We negotiated to pay 1/2 of what they were asking (they asked 1000 CFA each, but we could take a taxi for 3000). We paid 500 CFA each, which turned out to be reasonable and only a little high). The route to the market was pretty much a straight line, and the first 2/3 of the trip there was little traffic. With each of us on different bikes, Becky was nervous at first because she couldn’t see Scott and didn’t want to get separated. The driver clearly noted this as he flagged the Scott’s driver to pull up beside us. (Scott suspects that he was really trying to renegotiate the fare in mid-ride, but who knows…) In the end, we arrived safely at our destination. The trip was kind of fun, but very disconcerting to ride the back of a motorcycle without a helmet. Fortunately both drivers kept to a pretty slow speed.

We picked up a SIM and bought a recharge card from a nearby street vendor. Not thinking, we bought the first recharge card we saw, which turned out to be 10,000 CFA ($20). This is a lot of money to put on a phone. We may end up using it in Togo and Ghana just because we likely won’t use it all while in Benin. We might even use it to make a quick call home – we are told that skype doesn’t work well here because the Internet is too slow.

With SIM and recharge card in hand, we stopped in a shop for a cool drink and tried to get Becky’s unlocked Android phone to work. It had worked fine with the Ghana SIM, but proved much more difficult with the Benin one. Neither Internet (GSM-EDGE) nor SMS would work. After fiddling for a while, we asked another person in the shop, since he was clearly using an Android phone. He responded “use Moov, MTN Internet is no good”, which didn’t help much. Fortunately, we were right downtown, and found a mobile shop. They directed us to the nearby MTN head office, where we were quickly sent upstairs, away from the queue, to the premiere service area. Speaking French poorly and being clearly non-native is an asset sometimes. After a brief wait there, the staff tried to get the phone to work. They did get Internet working, but SMS failed to send (we could receive but not send – and apparently, it worked in the MTN person’s phone, but not on Becky’s). We thought we had to somehow activate it, but they didn’t seem to understand that. After about 45-minutes, we gave up. We could call each other (using voice), which is enough while Becky is at the conference, so Scott can come and escort her from the conference site to the hotel at the end of the day. The site and hotel are very close together, but still better to walk together in the dark.

We were slightly adventurous with lunch and choose to eat at a Grill restaurant. It was still pretty up-scale from a local perspective, but not as posh as some of the restaurants we saw. It didn’t have AC, but rather fans and an open walled design, that is the cement wall was a mesh type design with lots of openings to allow air to pass through. This made for a quite pleasant place to sit and eat lunch, and the food was quite good.

After lunch, we decided to walk to the Artisan market. On the way there, we saw a motorcycle crash, and as we got closer, saw the driver had a badly bleeding head wound and possibly other injuries. By the time we got close, several guards from a nearby government building had arrived, and appeared to be phoning for assistance, so we didn’t linger and try to help. Scott decided this was a sign not to ride any more motorcycles today and we walked home from there, having not found the Artisan market. Fortunately it was only a few kilometres to walk back to Haie Vive and the home of our hosts.

We never did find the Artisan market, mainly because Scott misread the map, and we walked the wrong way. Perhaps we will try again another day.