Is Africa the new hotspot?

Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t generally discussed in terms of being a hotspot for smartphone usage, but in the last few months we’ve heard from a growing number of voices discussing the region as the next big opportunity.

IDC estimates the most developed markets in the region now boast smartphone penetration rates at around 50 per cent, with East Africa seeing the strongest growth levels alongside South Africa, which now has annual shipments of nine million smartphones.

Reacting to this trend, several companies have entered the market trying to challenge household-name device manufacturers with home-grown, or at least home-tailored, smartphones.

Increased availability of 3G (and even 4G) networks is creating a thriving market, but it seems success in the region isn’t as easy as launching the same handset as in every other market, or just churning out devices with low price points.

Instead, it is the companies which have invested in specific marketing and appealed directly to the local consumer who are making the biggest waves.

While Samsung enjoyed success here, many of the other major players are less well-known.

Addressing regional issues
Variable levels of connectivity in the region means dual SIM, for example, is an extremely popular feature. Reliability is key, especially considering mobile is being positioned as central to the economy, with applications relying on the ability to get a cellular signal.

When we spoke to executives at Africa-focused brand Tecno Mobile at a recent event, they stated the company’s whole ethos was about providing – and heavily marketing – specific regional features.

It pioneered dedicated camera filters for each market it operates in and made a point of highlighting its regional expertise by using slogans such as ‘Made in Ethiopia’ for its devices.

It’s not just Tecno which is playing the ‘local’ card. South Africa-based vendor Onyx Connect announced it will shift all its production to Africa early next year to try to grow its market-share, both with white label devices and forthcoming own brand units.

Sales director Andre Van Der Merwe told Mobile World Live the major cause of complaint for handsets sold in the markets it operates in is faults in the mini-USB port. If you aren’t actively talking to your customers in the area you’ll never find that out – which means you’re at an instant disadvantage.

These companies, and others with a heavy regional presence, are looking at creating advantage through local knowledge.

Open door
Simon Baker, IDC’s senior program manager for mobile handsets in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, told Mobile World Live the traditional lack of attention on the market from the major global manufacturers (Samsung apart) had opened the door for these locally-focused players to meet the specific needs.

“Many of the global handset manufacturers haven’t traditionally given Africa a whole lot of interest and maybe haven’t given it the attention they have with some other markets,” he said.

“Over the last few years, we’ve seen the emergence of several ‘local brands’ who have focused their attention on creating a strong regional presence alongside good retail and distribution channels. They’re becoming really big players.”

“Clearly their price points are very good, but they also react quickly to the market. They have been good at establishing trading support, especially in rural areas, and have created the branding to make a big splash.”

He added the fact many African consumers buy their handsets on the open market rather than through an operator-owned retail store makes it all the more important to have a strong retail channel and in-market brand presence.

It will be interesting to see if, as smartphone usage becomes prevalent, consumers remain loyal to the companies offering ‘local’ devices or if they are swayed by the juggernaut brands, which are likely assessing developments very carefully from the sidelines.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.

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