IDC has released 2017 statistics for mobile phones in Africa. In summary, of the 225 million mobile phones shipped on the continent in 2017, 136 million were feature phones and 89 million were smartphones. In other words, 60% of mobile phones sold in Africa in 2017 were feature phones.
That means that smartphone sales in Africa fell by 39% against the previous year’s records. Africa has remained a feature phone market and last year’s performance has set back smartphone adoption on the continent significantly.
Which Feature Phone Brands Sold The Most?
According to IDC, the brands that rule feature phones on the continent are itel (we already told the story of itel’s success in Africa), TECNO, Nokia, Alcatel, and then Samsung, in that order.
Behind itel are TECNO and Nokia. The tech world may scoff at low-technology feature phones, but global smartphone penetration is around 50%. That means about half of mobile phone users in the world are still feature phones. Feature phones are still so relevant that they helped push HMD Global (Nokia) to global number 6 spot in mobile phones in 2017.
Here Come Smarter Feature Phones
But feature phones are getting smarter too. In 2017, we saw the first 4G-enabled feature phones, like reliance Jio Phone, and more such models are on the way. Feature phones are evolving instead of dying.
The Attraction Of Feature Phones
Low cost is the most obvious attraction. Feature phones are dirt cheap. Battery life is another. It is hard to find a smartphone that matches the battery life of the average feature phone. As such, in areas where public power supply is a big problem – which is most areas of Africa, feature phones are essential. Here in Lagos, many individuals who own a smartphone also own a feature phone for this very reason.
Simplicity. As strange as it may sound, there are many people who are not appreciative of the distractions of the always-connected life that smartphones come with. They abhor social media, constant email notifications and the like. So, feature phones it is for them.
Privacy and security. Similar to those are others who are wary of the privacy breaches that smartphones open users up to. Smartphones are constantly mining our personal data for use in ways we may not approve. Again, feature phones are the preferred choice of individuals who are concerned with these things.
The USSD revolution In Mobile Banking
While the tech ecosystem in Nigeria has been largely driven by a hyped frenzy of smartphones, the banks have clearly seen the light and have been smart. There is an ongoing mobile banking revolution in Nigeria, and it has little to do with apps.
Guaranty Trust Bank spearheaded a major thrust in the adoption of USSD codes for banking transactions with their *737# platform and other banks have followed. The result? Nigerian banks are making tons of easy money. It is difficult to see how anyone can lose by addressing the needs of 80-85% of the population.
USSD, not 3G or 4G, is the new cash cow of Nigerian banks and telcos. It is a back to the future kind of revolution. The ability to conduct banking transactions on basic mobile phones with or without an internet connection is priceless.
Not to mention that even USSD is often a godsend to smartphone users in Nigeria who experience has taught that their 4G internet connections cannot often be relied on at critical moments of need. Of a truth, everybody finds USSD useful around here.
Mobile In Africa, Going Forward
Africa’s smartphone penetration was at 22% in 2017. That is the present reality that developers and others looking to tap into the continent must deal with. Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Nairaland has been smart with their mobile web strategy.
As I have said before, you cannot outspend realities on ground. Adaptation is key.
On this matter, I have been asked if I believe what future phones are the future for Africa. My position is, and always has been, that whenever the reality on ground in Africa changes, the dynamics between feature phones and smartphones on the continent will change.
Until then, it is wisdom to not dismiss feature phones as unimportant in any conversations or projects involving Africa.