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Africa's hottest commodity: the battery

Under the cool shade of an umbrella-shaped tree in this hot, drought-stricken region of Africa, four women pound millet, their large wooden pestles rhythmically rising and falling like pistons.

Just a hundred yards away, a larger group of women hauls animal-hide bags of water up from a well 60 feet below.

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Activities like these have been carried out for centuries in Nigeria. But nearby is something that dramatically transforms this ancient scene:

A proud man, surrounded by attentive friends, is clutching a large, brand-new transistor radio that is belting out a catchy African tribal song from the neighboring state of Cameroon.

The humble battery, so small it fits in the palm of a hand, is one of the most valuable commodities on the African continent today.

To this man in his small Nigerian village close to French-speaking Niger, the transistor radio is a status symbol.

The batteries that power it make radio the single most important communicator on a continent where most people cannot read.

In Tanzania, the government handed out hundreds of radios so villagers could learn where to obtain reading materials for the state-sponsored literacy programs.

And on a drought-stricken continent, the battery is the poor man's defense against the sharp curtailment in hydroelectric power.

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In many parts of Africa and particularly in such West African states as Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and Ghana, the lack of rain has reduced the volume of water behind dams, the source of hydrelectric power, to perilously low levels. The result is frequent power outages in cities such as Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, Accra in Ghana, and Lagos and Ibadan in Nigeria.

When the power fails, elevators stop, air conditioners grind to a halt, the hot water cuts out, and television and radio go off the air. But with a good stock of batteries, Africans can still use battery-operated razors and small battery-operated fans. They can flick on flashlights and turn to their radios for entertainment or to learn that their country has just succumbed to a military coup.

''The easiest way to get across to the public is radio,'' says Oladipo Yemitan, general manager of Radio Nigeria at Ikeja. Television, he explains, ''is for the elite. Not too many people can afford it.''

The transistor radio is both companion and communicator for Africans, be they market sellers, blacksmiths, farmers, traders, or the night watchman who finds a transistor helps ease the boredom of a lonely night vigil.

Some resourceful Nigerians find the radio is an effective way to attract customers. Mr. Yemitan recalls an irate passerby who castigated the woman owner of a Lagos food stall for turning her radio on at full volume. The food stall owner was not in the least abject about the noise she was creating.

''This is the way people can learn where to find my food, so please if you don't like it, please go away,'' she replied heatedly.

Batteries are so important in Africa that residents stock up by the boxful. Battery smuggling also is pervasive.

In Nigeria, a cheap transistor radio costs 20 naira (about $28). According to Mr. Yemitan, the common man will settle for a medium-wave radio, which is cheaper and provides him with all he needs: music and news.

''They're not interested in getting the BBC and Voice of America,'' he says. But among some intellectuals, he adds, ''You would be surprised at the number of people who get up at 3 and 4 in the morning to hear Voice of America.''

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