In recent weeks, Africa, of all places, has been a hotbed for smartphone news. Microsoft is teaming up with China’s Huawei to launch an Africa-specific smartphone, the “4Afrika,” and Nokia recently released what it described as an “entry-level smartphone” in South Africa.
Duncan McLeod, the founder and editor of South Africa-based Tech Central, joins us to explain the smartphone landscape in Africa. McLeod talks about Africa’s emergence as a viable smartphone market and the wisdom — or folly — of Africa-centric marketing campaigns. He also discusses where BlackBerry — which currently dominates the smartphone market in Africa — will find itself amid the uptick in competition.
Download the podcast (15:40 minutes) or use the player:
Here are some excerpts from the podcast:
TechNewsWorld: Let me ask you about the phrase “African smartphone market.” This is a catch-all that a lot of writers use when talking about these recent events, and I’m guilty of this myself. It seems like it’s perhaps a bit too simplistic to just say the “African smartphone market.” Microsoft and Huawei, for instance, have a very specific set of countries that they’re targeting with their new smartphone — South Africa, Morocco, Egypt among them. And then the Nokia phone that I mentioned, the 620, has only launched in South Africa as of yet. So I’m curious if you could kind of explain what countries we’re talking about when we talk about the “African smartphone market.”
Duncan McLeod: Sure, David. I think we joke down here in South Africa — there’s a phrase we use a lot: “Africa is not a country.” I think that often you see news reports coming out of places like the U.S. which tend to suggest that Africa is one homogenous place. In fact it’s a continent with over 50 countries, and it’s a vast place. If I was going to fly up to west Africa, for example, that’s a good six- or even seven-hour plane trip; fly up to east Africa, five-and-a-half or six hours. It’s a big place — a lot of diverse cultures and a lot of different markets….
TNW: One thing that’s interesting about these products that I just mentioned is that they’re targeted and marketed at Africa. The Microsoft/Huawei phone, for instance, is called the 4Afrika, and Nokia made a point to say its smartphone, the 620, was an “entry-level smartphone,” which kind of distinguishes it from its European or North American products. Is that kind of Africa-specific marketing something that people are flattered by? Or is there a sense that — I don’t want to say it’s patronizing, but is there a sense that they don’t need the special treatment and that it’s just any other smartphone market?
McLeod: That’s a very good question. Certainly I don’t think we’ve seen this sort of localization and this sort of push on Africa-specific products to any large extent in the past. Certainly — and I can talk to the South African market — we’re certainly like the rest of the world in terms of apps and stuff. We have app development going on for the different platforms, particularly for BlackBerry and for Android. I don’t know. It’s an interesting question, David, I don’t know the answer to that. I guess we’re going to have to wait and see.
TNW: With these recent events and the recent products being released, I’m curious if the African market is really — and sorry to keep using the phrase that I disparaged earlier — but I’m curious if we’re seeing a realization that there is a market for these sorts of products in Africa. Or, conversely, if there hasn’t been a market in the past and now we’re kind of seeing it evolve to the point where these companies are trying to tap into it. Is it a case of, “Oh my God, we could be selling stuff there?” Or is it, you know, there is a market now that there wasn’t in the past?
McLeod: I think there’s a massive market emerging. They say Africa is going to be the next big growth opportunity over the next 40 or 50 years, and certainly we’re seeing — not the whole continent, but pockets of the continent in east and west Africa, and in southern Africa, enjoying really strong economic growth. And I think it’s not just the telecommunications and smartphone business that’s gonna grow on the back of it, but these entire economies. So I think companies like Microsoft and like Huawei, which are involved in this, have seen that there’s this huge growth opportunity on the continent and they’re keen to tap into that at an early stage … .
TNW: You mentioned BlackBerry, and I wanted to ask you about that. They’ve been in the news a lot. They’re releasing a new phone, and they also recently announced that they were bowing out of Japan because they couldn’t get a foothold in the market. Where do you see BlackBerry in South Africa, for example? What’s the market share? What’s their perception? How do they fit into the smartphone scene?
McLeod: They’ve been huge, and they’ve done incredibly well over the last five years. In the South African context, they’re by far the biggest smartphone brand by a very long margin.
There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about the BlackBerry operating system and where the company is going with that. There’s a lot of talk — and BlackBerry hasn’t been entirely forthcoming on exactly where it’s going — but it appears their [current] service is not going to exist to any extent with BB10, which raises interesting questions about whether BB10 can really gain a foothold in emerging markets … .
It’s quite interesting that the first device that BlackBerry has introduced running the BB10 platform is really seen as a high-end device that competes with devices like the Samsung Galaxy S III and the iPhone 5, when BlackBerry’s real saving grace over the last 18 months has been emerging markets and these cheap devices like the BlackBerry Curve. So it’s quite curious that BlackBerry has decided to launch this high-end [device] and is going after first-world markets to compete directly with Apple and Samsung. Its real bread and butter — its saving grace over the last year or so — has been emerging markets.