A quiet announcement at BlackBerry World has powerful implications for the African smartphone market, and may hold the key to RIM's future.
It is no secret that BlackBerry is a far greater force in the developing world than it is in its home continent of North America.
Growth in Nigeria is about to make South Africa look like a slow Sunday at the sewing machine store.
Soon, Nigeria may be added to the list. BlackBerry is already the number one smartphone brand there, but in a tiny smartphone market – which comprises less than 5% of the phone market. And that is without having direct representation on the ground.
In the next two months, a BlackBerry office will open in Lagos, and Nigeria will become a specific target market. The news was revealed by Robert Bose, head of RIM for Central Europe, Middle East and Africa, at the recent BlackBerry World conference in Orlando, Florida.The significance cannot be overstated. Even with only 5% of the mobile market being smartphones.
In most Western developed markers, all eyes would be on that smartphone chunk, both because it typically makes up half of the phone market in such territories, but also because it is a definitive marker of who leads the market.
Americans, therefore, look with bemusement at markets like South Africa, where BlackBerry owns half the smartphone user base, and is even voted the coolest brand by teenagers.
Guess what? The same is happening in Nigeria.
And guess what else? Growth in Nigeria is about to make South Africa look like a slow Sunday at the sewing machine store.
The hidden factor behind BlackBerry's success in Africa is one simple word: aspiration. It is the business phone that denotes having made it – even if you're not in business. Strangely, the iPhone does not carry that cachet. It denotes someone with money, but it is also regarded as an expensive toy rather than a tool. In Nigeria, there is little aspiration for toys.
“The brand has gone viral in Nigeria, to the extent that a Nollywood (Nigeria's Hollywood) movie was made about people trying to acquire a BlackBerry*,” says Bose. “We're opening an office in Lagos in the next 60 days.”
Underpinning the appeal of the brand is the access it provides. The R59 a month unlimited Internet deal has been critical to its success in South Africa. BlackBerry data packages are now expected to be the key to the Nigeria market.
BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), too, has been core to success in markets where BlackBerry dominates smartphones. It is those markets where take-up of BBM is highest among BlackBerry users: 99% in South Africa and 97% in Nigeria.
And then there is affordability. In markets like South Africa, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria, BlackBerry's secret weapon was the Curve 8520. It is the single most popular smartphone model – across all brands – in each of these countries.
Which brings me to the other remarkable feature of the Nigerian smartphone market: BlackBerry sells as many high-end models there as it does low-end Curves.
“A lot of people expect that the only devices we would sell in Nigeria would be the 8520 or the cheapest phones,” says Waldi Wepener, RIM's regional director for East, Central and West Africa. “But we sell as many at the high end.
“Because Nigeria is not a subsidised market, and operators don't subsidise devices down to zero, the price of the device at the user level is very visible. And that doesn't hold back the market.”
The 8520 sells at up to US$200, while the Bold 9900 has a price tag of around $600.
Counterfeit devices, which bedevil the sales of brands like Apple in particular, are not as great a problem for RIM. Again, it comes back to the aspirational nature of the market. “Nigerians want to feel they are holding the authentic product.”
In short, customers do not merely want to be seen to be successful, but to feel they really are successful.
Therein lies BlackBerry's new hope, and its potential to confound those who predict it cannot survive its current loss of Western market share.
Consider this: in a market of 100 million phone users, where only 5 million use smartphones, and half of those are BlackBerry devices, what will happen when the market begins a mass migration to smartphones?
If the Nigerian market remains true to form and aspiration, that means a market of tens of millions of units available to RIM in the next two to four years. Now repeat that equation in Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world (Nigeria is at number seven).
Yes, the American market is critical, and it is where both innovation and opinion carry the most weight. But if RIM is building a new future, the foundations are emerging right now in developing markets like Nigeria.
* See Blackberry Babes on YouTube.
Arthur Goldstuck is an award-winning writer and analyst, managing director of World Wide Worx, and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee.
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