• Home
  • /
  • Devices
  • /
  • Smart feature phones to break Africa’s connectivity barrier

Smart feature phones to break Africa’s connectivity barrier

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 07 Feb 2020
The Vodacom Vibe 4G smart feature phone.
The Vodacom Vibe 4G smart feature phone.

Smart feature phones that support social media and instant messaging apps are expected to rapidly gain users across Africa in 2020, as the continent eyes connecting its first billion users to the Internet.

As Sub-Saharan Africa remains the fastest growing mobile region in the world, analysts believe smart feature phones based on the Android operating system will play a crucial role as more users upgrade from basic feature phones with no Internet access.

Across the continent, the basic feature phone is still the mobile phone of choice, making up more than half the user base. According to an IDC report, shipments of feature phones totalled 31.4 million units in the second quarter of 2018, constituting a 58.3% share of Africa's overall mobile phone market.

However, analysts say the balance is expected to gradually shift, as smartphone penetration is forecast to cross the 50% mark by 2025.

Lynette Hundermark, MD of Useful & Beautiful and part-time ICT lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, believes the smart feature phone revolution will continue in 2020 as consumers increasingly look for affordable Internet-connected devices, low-cost data usage and access to popular messaging apps.

“At the start of 2010, Africa was predominantly a basic feature phone market, with high-end Apple and Samsung smartphone devices entering the market. Apps were considered a luxury and an unnecessary spend for businesses, except for those with a high wealth consumer base that were likely to own these devices.

“However, smart feature phones powered by KaiOS will be the ones to watch this year, as they combine the best of both worlds – low-cost data usage while having access to popular mobile apps, which will be light on data usage.”

First on the scene

Smart feature phones are increasingly becoming more popular in Africa.Early last year, mobile operator MTN introduced its “smart feature phone” – the Smart S, which runs on KaiOs.

In November, African telecoms operator Africell launched its first 3G smart feature phone, called afriphone.

Last year, Vodacom launched its 4G smart feature phone – the Vibe 4G, which runs on theVodafone operating system.

According to GSMA, mobile phone affordability remains a primary challenge to Internet adoption and data consumption across emerging markets such as Africa and India, and accelerating affordable lower-end smartphone ownership prompts the first step in the journey of Internet adoption.

Discussing other trends expected to shape mobility in 2020, Hundermark says instant messaging apps,engaged citizenry, personalisation, an app-centred mobile strategy and privacy will all become increasingly important to businesses as Internet penetration increases across the continent.

“2020 could see the rise of more affordable instant messaging platforms for Africa, but also will give rise to businesses leveraging these instant messaging platforms to communicate with their target audience. Social media is also growing as people are moving less to human contact and keeping in touch with friends and family via Facebook and Instagram. With load-shedding in SA, the torch is the most used feature on a mobile phone.”

Lynette Hundermark, MD of Useful & Beautiful.
Lynette Hundermark, MD of Useful & Beautiful.

Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx, says in South African terms, data use will become more affordable and accessible over the next two years, resulting in a continued migration from feature phones to low-end smartphones.

“This will result in a significant shift in the way handsets are used. Most South African adults will become part of the app economy, and use apps for everyday purposes. This will probably spark a surge in apps for the basic user, or for basic uses.While basic feature phones still make up more than half the user base, the balance will shift gradually, and we should see smartphone penetration cross the 50% mark by 2025.”

Goldstuck references a Pew Research Centre 2018 report, which shows just above 50% smartphone penetration in SA, with 60% consisting of the adult population.

“These numbers will probably reach 65% and 75% in 2020, with the 80% mark in sight for adult use.”

However, he believes the popularity of smart feature phones will depend on the extent to which MTN and Vodacom push their respective smart feature phones, bearing in mind that only a limited number of models are available.

“There is little doubt that smart feature phones will be among the best-sellers in the markets where they are released, but even best-sellers take time to shift the needle of market share. In SA, smart feature phones will make up a small proportion of the migration, as they will serve more as a bridge between the feature phone and smartphone worlds, rather than creating a mass migration.

“At R249 and R299 respectively, these are very compelling options, but the marketing also has to overcome the fear of data ‘eating’ people's airtime – one of the major fear factors in moving to smartphones.”

Mobile shift in 2020

In terms of the big evolution to be expected in mobile trends, Goldstuck believes smartphones will more readily become business tools, as they lay a foundation for the first half of the coming decade.

“The biggest shift coming in 2020 and 2021 is faster download speeds and faster performance on handsets, which means apps will be given greater capability, leading to new layers of service emerging on phones. With less latency and more capacity, this means smartphones will take over more roles of computers and accessing enterprise activity more effectively.”

Meeting and sharing applications like Skype, Zoom, Slack and Teams are becoming increasingly important, while productivity tools like Salesforce and Trello will gradually come to the fore, requiring companies to create seamless communication, whether voice, text or video, according to Goldstuck.

Hundermark points out mobile will be a key enabler in firms executing their five-year digital transformation strategies.

“Many corporate businesses, especially in SA, were on a five-year plan since 2015 to have their digital transformation in place by 2020, and unfortunately, have realised it isn't as easy as it seems. There are lots of internal processes and systems integrations required which take time and planning. Consumer mobile adoption is key here, as mobile will definitely be an enabler in accelerating these digital transformation processes for businesses.”