Vodacom boosts Africa’s smart feature phone proposition

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The KaiOS Smart Kitochi.
The KaiOS Smart Kitochi.

Mobile operator Vodacom plans to extend its smart feature phones portfolio by bringing KaiOS-powered devices to the South African market in the second quarter of 2020.

This is according to Sylvester Moyo, executive head of terminals of Vodacom International Business, speaking at the official announcement at AfricaCom 2019 that Vodacom is the first to bring KaiOS devices to Tanzania.

KaiOS’s mobile operating system, which already has more than 80 million active users in over 100 countries, works on feature phones but powers them like a smartphone.

In Tanzania, Vodacom has partneredwith KaiOS Technologies, maker of the KaiOS operating system, Azumi and MediaTek to launch the first affordable smart feature phone, Smart Kitochi, in the East African nation.

“We recently launched a product called Vibe 4G in South Africa but it wasn’t with KaiOS – it was propriety software that we launched with. We are launching with KaiOS in South Africa next year Q2.”

Moyo revealed the KaiOS-powered smart feature phones went on sale at Vodacom stores in Tanzania on 1 November, and the uptake has been “quite good”.

“We’ve almost done 100% penetration of all the outlets that we wanted to go to and the devices we had in-country as the launch devices are all finished.

“This is a device we launched jointly with the partners to ensure we can bridge the digital divide in a country like Tanzania where smartphone penetration is still at about 30%.

“The bulk of our customers in Tanzania cannot afford a smartphone. An entry-level smartphone of about $50 is unaffordable for the majority of citizens of Tanzania, and this device, to a large extent, is going to ensure the 70% of customers that could not traditionally afford a smartphone can potentially get access to this product that we have positioned at about $20.

“With a very little subsidy from Vodacom, it does assist us to enable those customers to get access to some digital services that they would traditionally not get from a 2G device,” he explained.

According to Moyo, Vodacom looks forward to accelerating the project, bringing more devices into the Tanzanian market, as well as extending the project into other Vodacom markets, including Mozambique and Lesotho.

At this year’s Mobile World Congress, KaiOS confirmed plans to expand its smart feature phones to more countries, with African nations top of the list. This news was followed by an announcement from Orange that it would roll out its own 'Sanza' smart feature phone with KaiOS and Unisoc to 16 countries in Africa and the Middle East.

In SA, MTN partnered with KaiOS, China Mobile and chipmaker Unisoc to bring its smart feature phone, the Smart S, in the country as well as its other markets. The mobile operator also launched its KaiOS-powered Smart S in Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda.

Running on Mediatek’s chipset platforms to enable 3G and 4G connectivity, the Smart Kitochi provides access to apps such as WhatsApp, Google Assistant, Facebook, YouTube, and other unique native content, giving more Tanzanians access to a previously inaccessible digital society, via the KaiStore.

“You can have an app store and the capability to download apps onto a feature phone. The main reason for this phone is that it is cheaper than a smartphone and brings Internet at price which was not available before.

“The end-user gets the best of both worlds. Affordability and access are the main barriers in Africa and the digital divide is our mission. Users can now access devices that were previously unavailable,” said a KaiOS official.

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