Effective management of an MPA, like any institution, depends on being able to communicate effectively. When an MPA is in a remote location, communication can be difficult, both internally among staff and externally between management and stakeholder communities. Preventing or responding to illegal activity, for example, becomes a challenge for managers when they cannot communicate immediately or securely with one another.

To address such communications challenges, the 822-km2 Mafia Island Marine Park, located offshore of Tanzania in eastern Africa, has forged an innovative relationship with WWF and global telecommunications group Vodafone PLC. In November 2004, Vodacom Tanzania (a company of which Vodafone is a major shareholder) launched mobile phone service on Mafia Island, primarily to support the marine conservation efforts of the surrounding marine park and WWF. In doing so, Vodacom Tanzania effectively “fast-tracked” Mafia Island for mobile phone service: at the time, the island was not among the top 20 locations earmarked for network coverage in Tanzania, due to its relatively small population (40,000) and low business activity.

The launch of Mafia Island phone service is part of a larger, GBP 400,000 (US $720,000) funding package to WWF from the Vodafone Group Foundation (VGF), initiated in 2003, to support marine conservation activities in the Eastern Africa marine ecoregion, from Somalia to South Africa. (VGF is the philanthropic arm of Vodafone.) Vodafone, which has major holdings in mobile phone companies throughout the region, was interested in exploring ways to provide technological support in parallel to the funding. A technology audit was conducted for Mafia Island, and concluded that strengthened communication capacity was necessary.

The new phone service complements a pre-existing system of 15 VHF radios that had been used to communicate within the park. Jason Rubens of WWF-Tanzania says that although radio communications can be very functional and cost-effective under certain circumstances, they also have serious limitations.

“Most importantly, a radio is a centralized, immobile unit shared by a number of people, ranging from an office or institution to a whole village,” says Rubens. “So compared with personalized phones, making direct contact with particular individuals can be a very indirect process involving leaving messages, arranging to speak later, and so on. This greatly slows down planning and implementation of activities.” Because the VHF network was (and remains) open to everyone, congestion of its limited channels was typically chronic, and it was also difficult to hold secure, confidential communications – a necessary element in planning surveillance and enforcement activities, says Rubens.

“That said,” he adds, “radio communications remain an important part of the marine park’s communications strategy. Despite its limitations, VHF communication with villages in particular is a cost-effective system that is fairly immune to abuse.”

In addition to assisting marine park management with enforcement, monitoring, and other activities, the new phone system benefits the small island community: Mafia Island fishermen use the phones to obtain market, fishing, and weather information, as well as to communicate with the mainland and rest of the world. All mobile phone users in Mafia – whether the marine park or villagers – are subject to the same normal usage charges as any Vodacom customer in Tanzania. VGF Director Mike Caldwell says, “Access to communications plays a vital role in development. This project demonstrates how mobile technology can contribute to the marine conservation efforts of Mafia’s marine park and the work of WWF, and also help change and improve the lives of local people.”

(This article was inspired by an initial report of the phone service partnership in WIO-MPA Newsletter, the newsletter of Western Indian Ocean MPAs.)

For more information

Jason Rubens, WWF Tanzania Programme Office, PO Box 63117, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Tel: +255 (0)22 2700077; E-mail: JRubens@wwftz.org