Which mobile Vendor will deliver the ultimate $50 smartphone for Africa?

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In Africa, it’s believed that there are more mobile phones than light bulbs. Yes, you heard that right. The mobile phone continues to be a household item cherished by families members even in rural areas that have never seen grid power for simple reasons; the phone is a communication hub that helps subscribers keep intouch with family and friends. It’s also being used as bread winner for those that use it to get the latest agricultural produce market prices. Lately the mobile phone is also a banking hub for the vast majority of the unbanked population.

However, price remains to be a prohibitive factor in increasing mobile smartphone penetration in Africa.

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Vendors across the globe are looking at putting a mobile handset into the hands of every user in Africa. As telecoms approach 100% mobile coverage in most countries, beefing up their networks to faster and latest mobile technologies, mobile device vendors are also hard at work making their devices even more smarter. The result will be outstanding. More users will be connected to the information grid and have access to basic information and communication services. The consequences will be social and economic growth as this study done in India confirms.

As we earlier documented, the journey to building cheap and affordable smartphones for sub-Saharan African started with the legendary Android-based Google Huawei Ideos. The sub $100 smartphone surpassed industry observers’ expectations. Sold through Safaricom stores, over 500,000 units were sold in Kenya alone increasing on smartphone penetration in the region. In Uganda, MTN reportedly also had great turnover with the device. But that was about 4 years ago. By last year, about 60 million smartphones of the 616 million mobile activations are estimated to be in Africa according to a study done by iHub Research in Kenya. That’s a remarkably small figure.

Following on its Google Ideos success 4 years ago, Google in September this year announced “Android one” program — a $100 feature-rich Android-based smartphone made to increase on the smartphone penetration in emerging markets such as India, Indonesia, Philippines and South Asia. The device is made in partnership with hardware partners like Micromax, Karbonn, Spice and chipmaker MediaTek. It boosts great features and Specs such as 5MP camera,1GB RAM, 4GB storage space, 1.3GHz quad-core processors, all-day-long 1,700mAh battery for such as low price point. However, that cost is simply still way of reach for ordinary African mobile users. Even more disappointing is that Google didn’t make any mentions of the device’s availability in Africa.

Other vendors however, like new-comer Mozilla insist on a much lower price point. The foundation that’s behind the popular Mozilla Firefox browser mid this year announced that  it would start selling low-cost $25 Firefox OS-based smartphones in India and Indonesia within the “next few months”. The organization has previously worked with vendors like ZTE and Alcatel to release prototype Firefox OS-based handsets such as the ZTE Open that cost about $100. Now the organization is aiming a lot more higher by bringing two India- based low-cost handset makers, Intex and Spice, to develop the low-price phones. However, it’s coming to more than 6 months after and we still haven’t heard much from Mozilla.

So who will bring the ultimate $50 smartphone to the pockets of money mobile users in Africa? Will it be Apple, HTC, Samsung, Microsoft? Am afraid not! All these vendors are entangled in features-wars of bigger screen sizes, sharper screen displays, faster processors, gimmick features such as air gestures and then endless patent trolls. They are so blinded to the fact that only about 1.75 billion out of the 7 billion people around the world have a smartphone while the vast majority do not. They are fixated at stealing each other customers with multi-billion dollar expenditure in luring Ads and even more dollar invested in R&D for devices (the so-called wearables such as smartwatches ) that nobody wants just to keep up with the Joneses.

Meanwhile more Afro-centric smartphone brands who have a deep understanding of the African market are cropping up. These vendors have cut out the noise and are less concerned about what the next Galaxy S6 will or will not have. They have taken time to study the African market, translating their research into great devices designed specifically for Africa. They even plan to setup manufucturing plants in the continent, tap into the vast engineering laborforce, create local ecosystems, deliver low-cost devices and ultimately seal their stronghold on the continent.

INFINIX formerly dubbed Sagem a brand that entered and left Kenya twice as fast in the years 2002-2005 had been quite popular due to its low prices and design. Sagem rebranded to Infinix and is offering phone models ranging from Infinix x570, Infinix race-bolt, to name but a few. The phones are designed in France and then assembled in China by a joint venture Mobiwire (Formerly Sagem) and Earning way (Chinese company). Infinix is a company founded in Hong Kong. The company is also largely present in Nigeria. Infinix is offering competitive devices that match-up both in features and specs to the big brands at affordable prices. Infinix Race Eagle running onAndroid 4.1 (Jelly Bean), 1GHz process,4GB ROM + 512MB RAM, 2000 mAh and an 8MP goes for about #29,500 ($170) while the Infinix Buzz running Android 4.0, a 1GHz processor,512MB ROM + 512MB RAM,1450 mAh battery, 5MP camera goes for #15,000($87)

TECNO is a Chinese based mobile phone manufacturer founded in Shanghai in 2006. Tecno does business exclusively in Africa and wants to be the mobile king of Africa. They have already established a manufacturing plant in Ethiopia and expects to roll similar plants in Kenya and Nigeria soon. The brand has decided to focus on a youth market of 17-35 years. No doubt price is a demanding factor in the kind of phones users end up with as Jumia Kenya’s Robinson notes;

“Majority of Kenyans make their decisions on what mobile phone to buy based on cost, design and looks, operating system and other things like network, connection, camera and battery life. Tecno and Infinix offer low cost-high feature phones, it’s what everyone wants,” — acccording to Robinson Murage, PR & Marketing Coordinator, JUMIA, Kenya’s leading online retailer while commenting on Tecno’s and Infinix’s vibrant presence in the Kenyan market.

Tecno has swept the Africa mobile market by storm thanks to its low cost devices. While it started as a low-end phone vendor whose brand only appealed to the downtown folks, it has of recent upped up its game. The Chinese device vendor now offers high-end devices such as its octa-core Tecno Phantom Z for less than $400 while at the same time making low-end smartphones like Tecno H7 that goes for $200. Now the vendor is oncourse to release a $30 smartphone by 2015 according to Kenyan Tech site Techmoran. The vendor apparently ships 1.3 million to 1.5 million devices every month in Nigeria alone which is a clear sign that the company’s strategy of providing low-cost data phone in order to encourage the uptake of smartphone is working.

Besides Infinix and Tecno, we also have the likes of X-touch with presence in middle east and bits of Africa like Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda producing competitive devices. Innjo is another candidate with phones like the Innjo I1s, a mid-range device that’s being sold exclusively in Nigeria by Jumia for just 14,000 Naira.

Africa is being expected to pass one billion mobile subscriptions to become the world’s second largest mobile market by 2016 according to new research from analyst firm Informa. Already the continent has been named a mobile-first, mobile-only space. While the big mainstream brands are overly concerned with cannibalizing on each others customers in America and Europe, new Afro-centric vendors with ambitious plans of setting up manufacturing plants in Africa are seizing market share of over 1.1 billion people.