Entry-Level Smartphones, the New Battleground for Africa’s Mobile Market?

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Article by: bird story agency

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Smartphone vendors have their eyes firmly fixed on Africa's growing demand for affordable 'premium' smart devices driven by youthful buyers to counter falling sales.

Entry-level smartphones, the new battleground for Africa's mobile market? Photo Courtesy: pikisuperstar

By Conrad Onyango, bird story agency

Shipments of smartphones that cost between US$100 to $200 are on the rise in Africa, defying a general slump in shipments caused by skyrocketing inflation, global supply chain woes and economic uncertainties.

The segment's share of shipments rose from 41.6% in quarter 3 of 2022 to 43.8% in quarter 4 of 2022 as vendors raced to launch affordable smartphones with premium features targeting youthful customers.

Insights from the International Data Corporation (IDC) show that while competition in the entry-level market segment heated up in 2022, incumbent (Transsion-owned) brands Tecno, Infinix and Itel lost some ground to rivals, both new and old.

Transsion, the market leader with a strong portfolio of entry-level devices, recorded a drop in its combined share from 47.9% to 43.4%, as second-placed Samsung gained significantly from a low of 19.6%.

"Samsung took second place with a 28.7% share thanks to the strong performance of its A04 model," said the IDC in its March 2023 quarterly mobile phone tracker report.

A comparative analysis by research firm Canalys placed Samsung's market share even higher, at 33%, against Transsion's 49%, with Xiaomi at 6% and Chinese brand, Realme in fourth place with 3%. According to Canalys, Realme recorded the largest annual growth rate 71% by November 2022.

"We are seeing a surge in sales from our entry-level segment, a pointer that reflects a growing demand for functional devices that are also affordable," said Realme Kenya PR & Marketing Manager Mildred Agoya in a recent statement.

In 2022, Realme aggressively pushed its entry-level smartphones under the brand's C-series range, in the Kenyan market. It laid out a new plan to appeal to young customers by increasing its research and development budget by 58% to bolster technology innovation and the quality of its affordable smartphones.

These developments reflect heated competition in the entry-level segment, with consumers benefitting from improved features.

Among other premium features, most entry-level smartphones now come with a high-resolution (as high as 50MP) camera. A powerful battery backs them to accommodate heavy phone usage. These attributes make the phones very popular among first-time smartphone owners.

According to GSMA's report, The Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa 2021, young consumers owning a mobile phone for the first time will remain the primary source of growth for entry-level smartphones for years to come. In this region, 40% of the population is under 15 years.

In Kenya, while overall smartphone shipments declined, the share of those priced at less than UD$200 rose to 55.3% from 41% in 2021, which the report attributed to vendors shifting their portfolios.

Samsung, which controls the overall smartphone market with a 31% share, leveraged its distribution through an asset-financing platform, M-KOPA, which offers underbanked customers the opportunity to purchase products like smartphones.

"While the general market sentiment was negative in Q4 2022 and reflective of the supply chain squeeze that occurred throughout 2022, those vendors that offered their products via asset-financing platforms were the least impacted, demonstrating a growing appetite for mobile financing schemes," IDC senior research analyst, George Mbuthia said.

Smartphone financing is on the rise on the continent and continues to be activated in several countries to unlock high-cost barriers to mobile phone ownership.

In March 2022, Telecom operator Orange partnered with Netherlands-based Yabx and Cote d'Ivoire's financial institution, Cofina, to facilitate smartphone financing in the West African country.

"High one-time expenditure becomes a key challenge to increase user adoption. We are confident that through this partnership with Yabx, the high entry-cost barrier will be eliminated, which will help in driving smartphone adoption," said  Orange Côte d'Ivoire Chief Marketing Officer Raoul Yobouet during the partnership launch.

In October 2022, Africa's giant telecom operator MTN unveiled a smartphone financing initiative in partnership with Intellligra, an open platform for smartphone financing. The partnership will leverage the buy-now-pay-later model to drive mobile adoption in the country.

Watu, an asset FinTech best known for its financing of two and three-wheeled vehicles across seven African countries, now offers smartphone financing in Kenya and Tanzania.

Last year, Nigeria (32.1%) and Egypt (56.2%) recorded the biggest declines in overall smartphone shipments on the continent the result of high inflation, a shortage of US dollars in Nigeria and the devaluation of the Egyptian pound against the dollar.

The South African market was the least affected major mobile market in the region, with IDC analysts attributing that to the market's rising focus amongst Chinese vendors, improved performance from incumbent brands and the festive season's promotional activities.

Overall, the number of mobile phones shipped to the continent dropped by more than 8 million units between 2021 and 2022, with feature phones recording the largest decline - from 27.1 million units in 2021 to 22.7 million units in 2022  - according to IDC.

Shipments in the smartphone segment dipped by nearly four million handsets, from 21.5 million units to 17.6 million.

But there is a ray of hope in 2023, with IDC analysts projecting a modest rebound with an annual growth of 3% in shipments into the continent on improved demand constraints.

"This is modest growth for Africa but given the level of uncertainty in the global and regional economy, there is room for cautiousness in the region's smartphone markets," said a research manager at IDC, Ramazan Yavuz.

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