Africa’s startups are seizing an opportunity they say Google and Apple Inc. have missed -- making apps for non-smartphones.
In a region where the average customer doesn’t own a smartphone or a bank card, hundreds of millions of people do use some kind of basic phone. That’s prompting developers to build no-frills text-based apps, keeping data consumption down and catering to specific local needs of farmers, merchants and small business owners.
“Africa isn’t a lagging copycat market to the U.S. or Europe,” said Benedicte David, who heads strategy and customer experience in the region for Orange SA, company, which recently set up a development lab in Cameroon, after opening similar hubs in Ivory Coast and Senegal in the past year. “What works here won’t necessarily fit there. There are specific local needs and opportunities.”
Smartphones allow users to essentially perform all the functions they might do at work, from editing documents and spreadsheets to browsing the web, as well as tap into a wide range of third-party applications. That market is dominated by Apple and Samsung Electronics Co. Feature phones are much simpler and cheaper phones, with smaller screens that are mostly used for calling and texting. Japan’s Kyocera Corp. and Blue Products make popular feature phones today.
MLouma, a marketplace for agricultural commodities out of Senegal that provides prices and availability data through text and voice, bulked up from a few thousand users to 75,000 through a deal with Orange. The French carrier backed similar initiatives in Niger and Mali.
Vodafone teamed up with Novartis AG on an SMS for Life service that uses back and forth text messages to manage medication stocks at hospitals in Tanzania. In Senegal, Karangue sends text messages to families to remind them of regular doctor’s appointments and to have their children vaccinated.
Consumers are typically charged on their prepaid phone account or monthly bill for these services, mostly on a per-use basis, and carriers cut a deal with developers to receive distribution fees or shared revenue. Though sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s least developed region for mobile, the area’s wireless subscribers add up to 400 million, and 100 million more will be added by 2020, according to estimates by wireless industry association GSMA.
“Those who think there’s no money to be made in Africa are wrong,” said Pierre Gattaz, head of France’s business lobbyist Medef.
In some cases, it’s proving more lucrative than smartphones though, because of scale, said Arnauld Blondet, head of product marketing for Africa and the Middle-East at the Orange Technocentre. “Text messaging has its limits -- no pictures, short text... But it allows us to reach a much bigger crowd,” he said.