On Day two of Mobile Web West Africa, I had Banke Alawaye of Parekelt Nigeria sitting beside me. We had met a year earlier at

Why the focus on smartphone apps in a dumb phone market?

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On Day two of Mobile Web West Africa, I had Banke Alawaye of Parekelt Nigeria sitting beside me. We had met a year earlier at the 2012 edition of the conference. As the event progressed and developers shared, we both observed the focus on smartphone apps at the expense of basic SMS-based services and feature phone apps. She went on to narrate how an enthusiastic developer had approached her with a work of his – an iOS app developed for Nigerians. When she asked him why he chose that platform, he responded to the effect that the Apple store allowed for his apps to be purchased. I wondered: So, he is going to attempt to earn a living off the tiny club of iOS users in the country.

I also ran into Hendrik of PriceCheck in the hall during lunch break. When I mentioned my name, he exclaimed and said he knew me! Shock! He then went on to narrate how he has been reading Mobility.ng for about two years and uses it as a go-to for information about mobile in Nigeria. Anyway, after I had blushed pink and white and gushed from his generous compliments, he said he had a big question. I was all ears. In a nutshell, Hendrick wanted to know why the majority of Nigeria-based developers are raving about building iOS and Android apps and games in an environment where over 90% of phones in circulation are feature (dumb) phones.

Two different individuals observing the same thing – one based here in the country, the other visiting for a few days. We have a country where over 90% of phones in circulation are feature phones. Over 90%. Why the intense focus on smartphone app development? I don’t have the answer to why this phenomenon is a trend. I have no idea what each developers thinks or sees. However, I agree with both Banke and Hendrik. It sure looks like something is very wrong with the approach of many mobile developers. Of course, the three of us might just be looking at the wrong thing.


  1. It would.appear that the folks who use feature phones are not the middle / high class.

    The middle and higher class are the folks likely to purchase apps, not the folks using feature phones, like Morufu -my Mechanic

    Besides, the line between smart and feature phones are getting rapidly blurred.

    With the Market awash with second hand blackberries and dirt cheap Android phones, it is doubtful if up to 90% of phones in use here are featurephones!

    We don’t even have the metrics to determine, or make such a categorical assertion.

    So, yes, I would focus on smartphones apps because , to catch marlins,. you need to go to where the Marlins are at..

  2. EyeBeeKay,

    Here’s a quote from a superb article, titled How Misinformed Ideas About Profit Are Holding Back The World’s Poor, that addresses this sort of thing in part:

    If Coke can make money selling sugary soda at 40 cents a pop to villagers who don’t need it, there is plenty of room for companies selling much more meaningful products they actually do need.

    I do not believe that anyone who can afford a bottle of Coke cannot afford a basic mobile app.

  3. that’s quite deep.

    but then, “affordability” is often a matter of decision.

    it is often about priorities, not whether you actually have the money for it.

    ask that bricklayer to buy a N100 app, even if it is actually useful, and hear his comments, or reaction!

    to him,that bottle of Guilder is far useful than that app that furnishes utilitarian value forever..

  4. This is a very good topic to debate on or discuss. I think Eyebeekay captured it nicely and yes, there may be people with money but not willing to spend it on something that could be very useful to them because they lack knowledge and also not just open to learn.

    Now Mr. Mo, you will remember your article on while the ad-supported model of business will not work in Nigeria or in fact Africa at large because data is expensive here. Again, you will remember your other article on mobile banking and how the banks are wasting their efforts on the big cities instead of targeting the unbanked individuals in the rural area. My point is that people using feature phones most likely will lack the education necessary to appreciate the benefits of apps or the means of payment even when are convinced in the usefulness of apps. Maybe if the banks should focus their attentions in the right segments as regards mobile banking, and also make it seamless but secure to effect payments through our phones, this problem will be take care of to a large extent.

    Finally, developers focusing their attention on 10% smartphones users rather 90% features users may well be the right thing to do because tha small percentage are the group who would be able or willing or simply have the means of payment. That last bit, means of payment is very important above every other thing.

  5. Harry,

    You and EyeBeeKay have made good points, yet still miss the focus. Apps as business are dead in the water here in Nigeria. Dead. We have about 4 million smartphones, about half of which are BlackBerry. Android has what percent? Certainly less than 10%. try making money off that.

    Now, look at the success stories: Eskimi, Mxit, Mobofree – all foreign players who see more clearly than our developers do. Eskimi has 10Mn users in Nigeria. That is bigger than smartphones in Nigeria. How did they achieve it? Mobile web and J2ME! Those transcends smartphones. It gives access to millions of dumb phone users. While we are facing smartphone apps here, foreigners come in and steal the show by largely ignoring those same smartphones. These platforms are making money – big money in the country and our developers are largely going hungry.

    As far as I can tell, our developers are getting mobile wrong for the most part. The success and the money are in the mass market.

  6. The bottomline is, forget making money off apps in africa. You talk about banks targetting the rural areas for mobile banking. The reason why they do not have bank accounts is because they are uneducated. Adding a mobile phone to the equation will make them more unwilling. Even in big cities, people are still skeptical about using ATMs and almost everybody i know will rather not dabble into mobile banking. If i am to make apps for Nigeria, i will concentrate on smartphone users. If BB users are often not interested in downloading apps, I dont think feature phone users will be any more interested. We may cite millions of users for sites like eskimi, the question is, how much are they making from those users?

  7. Efe,

    How much does Facebook or Twitter make from users? See?

    Eskimo is making millions of naira whether or not it is directly from the users. By targeting the numbers, they are able to leverage and generate revenue. Chasing smartphone apps in Nigeria and Africa is chasing a tiny minority, many of whom will still not pay anything anyway.

  8. Mister Mo,
    You did cut it straight to the root. App developers are working on a losing business model: targeting a tiny few in a market with great potential for feature phones. App developers have to review and re-launch a strong business model based on numbers, something Eskimi has done very well. How do you expect to break numbers by selling N100 apps to 1,000 people when you can retail N1 mobile products to 1,000,000?

    They key here is the target market; Simple.

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