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MWC: KaiOS to bring more 'smart feature phones' to Africa

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KaiOS wants to expand its smart feature phones to as many countries as it can.
KaiOS wants to expand its smart feature phones to as many countries as it can.

KaiOS Technologies wants to see its operating system for 'smart feature phones' expand to more users across Africa.

This after it announced a major deal with global mobile network Orange this week.

"We want to continue talking to more operators, more handset manufacturers and really try to expand to as many countries as we can," David Bang, KaiOS VP for business development for the Americas, told ITWeb during an interview on the side-lines of Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 in Barcelona.

In November 2018, MTN announced a partnership with KaiOS, China Mobile and chipmaker Unisoc to bring affordable 3G smart feature phones to its African markets, including South Africa.

This week, at MWC, Orange announced it would rollout its own 'Sanza' smart feature phone with KaiOS and Unisoc to 16 countries in Africa and the Middle-East.

The Sanza phone will be available in Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central Africa Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, C^ote d'Ivoire, Egypt, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Jordan, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, Sierra Leone and Tunisia.

From April, Orange customers in Mali, Burkina Faso and C^ote d'Ivoire will have access to the phones, and other countries will follow later in the year.

The KaiOS operating system (OS) for smart feature phones already has more than 80 million active users in over 100 countries. Its mission is to help close the digital divide by bringing mobile connectivity to the billions of people without the Internet in emerging markets.

Expansion plans

"We are going to continue expanding; we are talking to most operators around the world including in Africa, beyond Orange and MTN, so it's just a matter of time," Bang said.

"In terms of why we are doing it, from day one our CEO was very specific on the strategy to expand. Our first market launch was the US, our second was India and after that we are really trying to go after the next big markets which are Africa, some parts of Asia and Latin America. So Africa really makes sense as the next big market to deploy to after India," Bang added.

"We are a free to use platform, just like Android. We contact operators like Orange but we also do deals with OEMs [original equipment manufacturers]. For the Orange deal, it was a device that is specifically built by an OEM for Orange. It's not a generic device that is being shipped somewhere else; this is a device that was developed specifically for Orange's requirements."

"People always ask us who our competitor is and you could say Android but it's not really true," added Tim Metz, marketing director for KaiOS. "We are actually competing with 2G feature phones because we are trying to convince people to go from a 2G feature phone to a 3G or 4G smart feature phone."

Price sensitivity

The low price of the smart feature phones is a key component for KaiOS. For both the Orange and MTN deals the phones will retail at around $20 (R280) per phone.

"From day one the vision was that the operating system had to be as light as possible to have a very small hardware footprint which allows the OEM manufacturer to keep the price very competitive. These prices just cannot be reached by Android or any touch-type device. We are talking about a whole segment that Android cannot go below," according to Bang.

"That is one of the reasons why we have the keypad because the touch-screen is a very expensive component. So by sticking with the keypad we can keep the cost low," added Metz.

"We will provide the OS to handset manufacturers for free but there are ways for us to monetise on the back-end in the same way Android does; through search, through store interactions and other actions like that," Bang said.

"Providing the OS for free is an essential part of our strategy because the handset cost needs to be as low as possible. Once you start adding licensing fees and other costs then the handset becomes too expensive."

Subsidised deals

In December, KaiOS announced a deal with Indonesian mobile device company WizPhone, for a KaiOS-powered 4G smart feature phone which will only cost $7 (R100) and Metz told ITWeb a similar deal could be possible in Africa.

"The price is so low because it is a partnership between the manufacturer and operator but also a bank and a retailer. So in this case we have other parties coming in to help subsidise the price and then they have their app on the phone, for example. That is something we are also starting to see some interest in in Africa as well," Metz said.

"So hopefully later in the year, we will see more of these types of partnerships hopefully also in Africa, because it doesn't have to be a bank or retailer; it could be an insurance company, or all kinds of partnerships are possible to bring down the cost of the device."

Metz also said the company has a strategy to make it easier for smaller players to get into the smart feature phone game.

"With these bigger players like MTN and Orange, the device gets really customised and something we have been working on is to have kind of a template phone. Because there are a lot of markets in Africa where there are a lot of smaller players that make maybe between 500 000 and two million phones.

"So we are working on having a kind of template where they can take it and the process is much easier and you can go to market a lot faster so that will also help later on to bring out phones much quicker," Metz explained.

Bang said in places like Africa, it is essential to provide services that connect people to the Internet.

"There are still three billion people worldwide who still don't have access to the Internet and there are still 1.7 billion feature phones out there, most of which are either 2G or 3G without applications or connectivity to Internet services.

"Having access to information helps children do better in school; it helps women find jobs and be more part of society. In the developing world, something like this really becomes a tool for life, we feel, and it's really an important mission to keep expanding this reach," Bang concluded.

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