True African smartphone promises affordability, quality

AfDB president Akinwumi Adesina and Mara Group founder Ashish Thakkar hold a replica of the new smartphone to be produced in SA. (Photo source: AfDB)
AfDB president Akinwumi Adesina and Mara Group founder Ashish Thakkar hold a replica of the new smartphone to be produced in SA. (Photo source: AfDB)

Africa's truly full-scale smartphone will be manufactured in South Africa and Rwanda.

This was the word from Mara Group founder Ashish Thakkar, announcing his company plans to establish manufacturing plants in the two countries to produce its newest product, the Mara smartphone (Maraphone).

The news, announced at the inaugural Africa Investment Forum on Friday, comes as local government officials have decried the lack of localised smart technologies.

Telecoms minister Siyabonga Cwele previously commented that government must support the production of smartphones that compete with the likes of Samsung or Apple but are much more affordable for South Africans.

Affordability and high quality are the key selling points of the Maraphone, says Thakkar.

He notes that a few smartphones are assembled in Africa but nothing is truly being manufactured on the continent. "China has Huawei and Xiaomi, the US has iPhone and finally Africa has Maraphone.

"Quality smartphones mean we can truly enable financial inclusion, micro-lending and micro-insurance. This can translate into better education, digital healthcare and agriculture efficiency and improved commerce."

Room for home-grown devices?

The Mara Group founder says the initial target market for the phones will be first-time African smartphone users, stating the phone project will take the smartphone business by storm.

However, in a market dominated by Chinese brands, the question is whether new consumers will be looking to buy African-produced smartphones.

The IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, which tracked the number of smartphone units shipped during the second quarter of 2018, revealed Chinese telecoms giant Huawei bumped Apple to become the world's second biggest smartphone maker for the first time.

Some analysts previously noted Huawei was successful in launching smartphones in the premium segment and capturing the mid-tier segment.

Arthur Goldstuck, World Wide Worx MD, says there is always room for new brands.

"If manufacturers held back because there were existing dominant players, Samsung wouldn't have taken on Nokia, and Huawei wouldn't have taken on Samsung. Who will take on Huawei? Potentially a brand that is still unknown today. There's no reason it can't come from Africa."

In order to ensure smartphone success, Goldstuck advises the company to avoid making grandiose promises.

"We've had many examples of 'Africa's first smartphone' or 'proudly South African smartphones' that didn't survive. The keys are high quality, low cost and strategic marketing, distribution and sales."

Global appeal

Although the proudly African phone will initially be marketed to local consumers, Mara plans to export and sell the smartphone in Europe. This, it says, is in line with plans to be a global player in the market.

"This will truly be transformative. It will create thousands of jobs directly and eventually hundreds of thousands of jobs indirectly in the ecosystem across the continent," says Thakkar.

He commended the African Development Bank (AfDB) for its push to support industrialisation on the continent as well as production of the Maraphone.

"This has truly been made possible thanks to the support from the African Development Bank and its strategy of industrialising Africa. We'll work with them to roll this out and scale it out. We all believe it is time to shift the narrative, which is why we are excited that the phone will also be sold in Europe."

Akinwumi Adesina, AfDB president, pointed out that by 2020, the value of Africa's mobile money industry is projected to top $14 billion. "We need African-developed mobile phones to leverage this potential."

According to Adesina, manufacturing a "truly African smartphone" proves the continent has great untapped potential just waiting to be given a chance.

"Africa is bold, strong and innovative. Africa's time is now.

"I couldn't be prouder. It just tells you the quality of entrepreneurship that we have in Africa... Africa is not just a market for others. Africa is going to be the manufacturing base to create markets within Africa and also have markets outside Africa.

"We are not just going to be a market for others but we are going to dominate others, which is what the Africa Investment Forum is all about."

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