Why You Shouldn't Forget About the Feature Phone in Africa

If you’re involved in mobile technology or gadgets in any way, you’ll know that the majority of news, reports and statistical information is focussed on the growth of the global smartphone market. Estimates in 2011, indicated that by the end of that year about 472 million smarthphones would be sold globally. This could arguably be due to the launch of the more affordable ZTE and Hauwei devices operated by Google’s Android versus Apple’s iPhone.
However, Mobile research firm Vision Mobile created the graph below to illustrate the size of the feature phone market in comparison to smartphones globally (collectively called the “œconnected device“ market). Results reveal that while smartphones make up 27% of the graph below, the remaining 73% comprises of feature phone devices. That’s a very clear majority so while smartphones may make the headlines, feature phones are the most widely used and should therefore not be precluded by developers and marketers.

Due to the constant improvements in technology and cost efficiencies in manufacturing, the definition of a smarthphone versus a feature phone can change rapidly. It is therefore important to define what we mean by a feature phone, especially in the African market.  In this case, a feature phone can be defined as a device that supports WAP(GPRS/Edge) connectivity, has a colour screen, can send an MMS message, has low-resolution camera and lastly supports J2ME native applications.

So, with the huge sales in smartphones in 2011, why does the feature phone segment continue to dominate the global sales market? The reasons for this include, 10 years of sales, an established and installed user base and most obviously affordability and cost of ownership.
More specifically, Nokia’s Series 40 handsets dominates the global market and is the dominant OEM (original equipment manufacturer) of mobile handsets in Africa. One estimate has positioned Nokia with a 65% market share across all of Africa. The vast majority of the devices supplied by Nokia can be classified into the following:

  • Basic 2G handsets like the Nokia 1110 that allow for phone calls and SMS messaging
  • Low-end feature phones (2.5G WAP) devices like the Nokia 5130 XpressMusic
  • High-end smartphones devices (3G and up) like the N and E series Nokia phones

Opera Mini, that has over 144 million monthly users globally, released their State of the Mobile Web and data for 10 African countries  in June 2011. Opera looked at the top 100 handsets used in each of the top 10 African countries and of the 100 total handsets listed 89 were Nokias.
The fact that a huge installed base of feature phone devices across Africa is made up largely of Nokia devices provides some insight into the needs of the African market with regard to mobile phone usage. There are many reasons for this market share, including but not limited to, the quality of the devices and superior battery life (an important consideration due to intermittent power supplies across Africa).

While smartphones are coming into Africa thick and fast with other OEM‘s like Samsung and Huawei leading the way with cost competitive Android based smartphone devices , it takes time for these devices to find their way into the hands of subscribers and so it is expected that the status quo of feature phone usage, will remain as such for the next 2-3 years. Any organization looking to provide mobile services in Africa need to factor the above information into their plans especially when it comes to the ever-interesting debate between mobile web versus mobile app. It serves no purpose to enter into the African market with apps and services for iPhones and BlackBerrys – there just isn’t enough of an audience for it.
Currently in South Africa, for example, the two most common feature phones are the Nokia 5130 XpressMusic and the Samsung E250. Therefore, it should be noted that if you are developing mobile web or even mobile applications for the mass South African mobile market and not designing for the E250, you are doing it wrong.
The feature phone makes up the largest part of the handset market both globally and in Africa and they are not going anywhere any time soon.
Source: Afrinnovator