lessons from the sub-Saharan Africa mobile phone market

When considering the world’s best mobile phone markets, your mind probably jumps to cities like Tokyo or Toronto, long before it reaches the likes of Kinshasa or Kampala.

While the average consumer may widely know bustling metropolises across the developed world as hubs for technological use and development, we must not be so quick to discount the importance of developing nations for this sector.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s 46 nations are home to a combined 1.17 billion inhabitants, 495 million of whom subscribed to mobile services in 2020, a number that GSMA expects to grow to 615 million by 2025.

To capitalize on this rapidly growing market, exporters and manufacturers need to invest the time to better understand the unique needs of local consumers and then use that understanding to find creative ways to address their needs.

The benefits of understanding consumers, however, is not unique to mobile phones. It can (and should) be used by any exporter seeking to enter new and unfamiliar markets.

For now, let’s take a look at the mobile phone market in sub-Saharan Africa, what its primary drivers are, and some of the reasons why one firm in particular has proven successful in the market.

Sub-Saharan African mobile needs align with feature-lite offerings

Despite the large market size and growth prospects, smartphone exports to sub-Saharan Africa have declined for three consecutive quarters, according to data from the International Data Corporation.

Smartphones, however, are not the whole story for the region’s mobile phone market––more than half of users opt for what are known as ‘feature phones’.

Colloquially referred to as “dumb-phones”, feature phones are lower-cost devices with much more limited functionality than their smart rivals.

They still allow users to text, call, and access apps like Facebook and use Opera’s internet browser, but they generally do not have access to third-party app stores and other options normally associated with iOS or Android devices.

Naturally, this reduction in features reduces the costs to consumers, a considerable selling point given that over 40% of people in sub-Saharan Africa live below the poverty line, making it one of the poorest regions in the world.

However, lower cost is not the only demand-driver for feature phone sales.

While the limited functionality of this type of device may evoke nightmares for many modern-day Western teenagers, sub-Saharan mobile users tend to prefer it.

This is because the limited features improve the battery life, allowing users to go weeks without charging, compared to mere days for most smartphones.

This is particularly important for two reasons.

First, many consumers do not have ready access to reliable electricity sources that they can use to charge mobile devices.

Second, the prevalence of mobile banking innovations in sub-Saharan Africa—such as m-Pesa in Kenya and MNT Mobile Money in Uganda––has made mobile phones the main source of several critical economic activities; this includes submitting government applications, sending money, and even making payments.

A long battery life becomes much more important when a dead battery means exclusion from basic economic markets.

Product adaptation

While the demand is there, for many of the largest smartphone manufacturers, selling feature phones just does not make economic sense, causing many of the well-known brands to simply not offer them.

It comes as little surprise then that popular brands like Apple, Samsung, and Huawei combine for less than a third of the mobile phone market share in the region.

In their place, lesser-known Infinix, Itel, and Techno––all of which are brands owned by parent company Transsion Holdings––dominate, claiming nearly half of the total market share.

While the unique economic conditions have created a niche market for this otherwise little-known Chinese firm to dominate, it is not strictly by chance.

Transsion has invested a considerable amount of time and effort into tailoring its products for this sometimes overlooked market.

Transsion adapts product offering to suit customer needs

Most mobile-savvy Africans know that in order to avoid network fees and get the best connectivity in low-coverage areas, they need more than one SIM card.

While such dual sim card hardware functionality is beginning to permeate Western mobile phone markets––primarily as a business phone feature––it has been the norm among Transsion’s product lines for some time.

Another area where Transsion has invested heavily is in their camera technology, which has been developed for better exposure on darker skin tones.

Again, this attention to customer-centric details in its primary export market has contributed to Transsion’s prominence there.

While the firm may not have the high-end design expertise of more well-known brands like Samsung or Apple, they have been able to acquire a strong market share by understanding the local customer needs and specifically designing their products with these customers in mind.

In an area where feature phones take preference over smartphones, this is all that is needed.

If you are an exporter, ask yourself how you might be able to better understand the customers in your target market in order to provide them with the best product for their unique needs.

That might just be your key to success as well.

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