Nov 20, 2011

iAfrOS: Africa, smartphones and the internet

Planning to get a new smartphone? You will probably consider an iPhone, a Samsung Galaxy, maybe a Blackberry or an HTC? Unless, of course, you happen to live in rural Africa. Then there is 2 in 3 chance that you will settle for a Symbian-based Nokia, or if you're not a fan of the once-omnipotent Finnish brand, you will most likely get yourself a basic Sony Ericsson or Samsung phone. Not to mention that there is only a 15% of chance that you will be getting any smartphone at all.

A parallel smartphone war

All of the statistics indicate that price is by far the largest factor when it comes to picking a smartphone in Africa. Most households have low income (at least by Western standards), while the majority of the Smartphones available on the market are priced at levels which make even a comfortable middle class American think twice before getting "the newest model". This explains the popularity of Nokia and Sony Ericsson gadgets, which might not be very advanced, but are definitely priced competitively.

As smartphone penetration is still low while the demand is high, no wonder that there are other companies which would like to tap into this market. Huawei created IDEOS, which is sold for $80 and is proving popular. Google has recently announced that together with its partner Motorola it plans to create its own cheap smartphone too (it is supposed to cost less than $80). This parallel "smartphone war" could further damage sales at Nokia, a loser in the Western gizmo race but currently the champion of the market for cheap smartphones.

WorldWideWeb?

While the likes of Nokia and Huawei are aiming at simply selling their mobile phones, Google has a greater ambition: connecting them to the internet. Internet usage across the continent is still quite low, but is surging quickly thanks to the growing use of phones with web capabilities. According to Intelligent Life magazine, there are currently around 89 million mobile phones with online accessibility in Africa (that's just 80 per 1000 people).

More devices with web access mean more business for Google, which already ranks as the second most popular website in Africa (after Facebook), according to the State of the Mobile Web report created by the team behind the Opera mobile browser. The Mountain View giant sees Africa as its next boom market, and promotes the internet there with initiatives such as "Get African Business Online" or the "Google Trader" app. More advanced smartphones could now allow its cloud-based services to become more accessible, and with the increasing demand for memory (relatively low in mobile phones) Google's cloud could be a hit.

Everyone benefits

Internet accessed through mobile phones could empower everybody, not just Google. There are many stories of how connectivity can transform people's lives. In October 2011, The Economist ran a story about how Ghana's shea nut pickers are benefiting from a smartphone app developed by the German software maker SAP. This example illustrates that the business interests of the tech giants and normal Africans can go hand in hand: as the harvesters' productivity and profits rise, SAP will demonstrate to its users the benefits of its technology, and hopes to eventually charge for the service. Everyone benefits.

There are many stories about how mobile internet can make life easier. Increasing productivity by adopting business IT solutions like the one in Ghana is one end of the story, and making life easier for consumers and 'mass' businesses alike is another. According to Craige Fleischer, the Regional Director for Southern Africa at RIM, smartphones can make it easier for people to shop and use financial services online, while driving new business to shops, banks and advertisers.

Internet connectivity isn't just about business though. It brings entertainment as well as profits, and this is as true in Africa as anywhere else. According to Opera's State of the Mobile Web report, game and music downloading and social networking are on average the most popular online activities among the smartphone-wielding Africans. However, search and email are also widely used, and these service can have business as well as entertainment purposes.

The bottom line

Africa is the continent with the lowest internet access levels, yet this is changing quickly due to the widening access to smartphones. Back in 2000, the online penetration levels in Sub-Saharan Africa stood at mere 0.6%. By 2010, this number rose to 10.5% (or 1/3 of the world average). Wider access to smartphones and the internet benefits individuals, small business and large corporations alike, and this realisation is the key to a common success. Supplying Africa with cheaper phones is definitely a good step forward. As the competition increases, the gadgets will get more and more technologically advanced, and thus will be able to provide more efficient business and entertainment tools to their users.


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