Sat Dec 03 13:38:36 SAST 2016

MOBILE REVOLUTION: Smartphones for Africa

Toby Shapshak | 2012-05-03 00:18:09.0
A man connects to the world during the annual August reed dance at Ludzidzini in Swaziland Picture: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS

While Apple, Samsung, Nokia and BlackBerry slug it out for the top end of the smartphone market, there is an interesting battle going on a few rungs down.

Smartphones are clearly the future of phones, and of mobile computing. Last year, an estimated 19% of all phones sold, or 472million, were smartphones. That is expected to double to 982million by 2015.

Currently, most cellphones being sold are so-called feature phones, many of which can't access the internet, but projections are that this will soon be overtaken by smartphones as their costs come down.

Cellphones have a central place in our lives, like nothing else. Globally, an estimated 50million people do not have electricity at home but do have a phone.

Large touchscreens, powerful processors, faster data speeds, ever-larger cameras and, of course, the wealth of apps are the kinds of features that sell smartphones.

But they are pricey mini-computers that are too expensive for most people - especially in emerging markets. And they have poor battery life, a hindrance in Africa, for instance, where an estimated 500million people do not have access to a power grid.

There is a blossoming middle class in Africa, 313million people or 34% of the continent's roughly 1billion population, according to the African Development Bank. Because of this emerging middle class, there is a new boom in mid-range smartphones.

This is partly due to the free Android operating system that allows for cheaper phones (and many of the apps), but also due to the migration of some of the best aspects of the feature phones: a radio (which is still the killer app in Africa), and dual SIM cards.

The former is easy to understand because it is still the most effective means of mass market communication; while the latter is a handy competitive advantage for a handset. Having two SIM cards means you can call people using one of two networks and on the same network they use, avoiding the notoriously high interconnect costs between different operators.

It's the purest form of problem-solving - instead of swapping SIM cards, which renders one number unavailable.

Four-year-old Mi-Fone, which calls itself the "first exclusively African mobile devices brand company", makes several cheaper Android-running smartphones which feature both aspects.

Nokia's own dual-SIM phone was launched last year and sold 18million units in the third quarter. It is part of the Asha range - recently launched in South Africa - which is essentially a kind of mid-range phone that Nokia CEO Stephen Elop said "blurs" features of the smartphone. Nokia's brand recognition remains strong in Africa, giving it a leg up over a number of competitors.

Chinese manufacturers such as Huawei and ZTE are making entry-level smartphones that are doing well in African markets, in small part because of their low cost. Huawei's IDEOS 7 was the best-selling smartphone for a time in Kenya late last year.

And even as BlackBerry struggles in mature markets (where consumers are focused more on the phone's features) it is selling strongly in cost-sensitive emerging markets.

These new smartphones are not an iPhone or Galaxy S but are functional, cheap and offer appropriate features to their target market.

And, yes, you can play Angry Birds on many of them.


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