Archive for the ‘Retail in Africa’ Category

Why the Potential of the African Consumer Market Cannot be Considered in Isolation from the Informal Economy

Top flight management consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, Deloitte, PwC et al have been taking a good long look at the emergent African Consumer Market for a number of years now. McKinsey, in fact, has just released a book on the theme, authored by their leading Africa experts. All of them acknowledge the existence of the informal sector in retail and wholesale trade and distribution, recognizing the competitive advantages and disadvantages for modern retail and consumer product companies seeking growth in African markets. They know their clientele must operate in the formal sector, and target the wealthier segments of the populace, and this is what they focus on.

Brookings Institution, however, has now caught up with their version of such a report – drawing heavily on consumer data from all the previous management consulting firm reports mentioned above – and this has inadvertently brought to light a major blindspot in the assumptions being made on the African consumer market opportunity. Unlike the management consulting firms who position their reports for the private sector, Brookings is necessarily forced to consider policy implications of their publication by virtue of their institutional nature.

Therefore, you have a report on the African Consumer Market opportunity that includes sections that attempt to justify the rise of consumerism as a signal of industrial development, through citations based on development indicators from the formal economy in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing, thus necessitating optimistic expectations of the decline of the informal sector. This theory of market evolution predicated on the decline of the informal as a signal of economic development, has, in fact, been debunked by numerous learned scholars in the field of development economics, such as Martha Alter Chen, and Ravi Kanbur.

By taking this route, the Brookings’ report is grounded in the assumption that the informal economy is a separate animal all together and one which will vanish into thin air with the ‘rise of Africa’ and her growing middle and upper classes with the discretionary incomes that make them so attractive to global brands.

This framing reveals their blindspot.

Ghanaian scholar Bright Stevens, and the OECD, both have described the emergent middle classes expected to make up the bulk of the African consumer market as those whose roots are firmly established in the informal economy, and that this emerging middle class is unlike the conventional descriptions of middle class as seen in the developed world.

That is, the emerging consumer classes of the African continent are more likely to earn their discretionary income from various activities that fall within the informal economy than from more traditional white collar employment or civil service. This can be easily discerned from the available data on the proportion of the working age population dependent on the informal economy, and the size of that informal economy, in each of the major consumer markets highlighted.

Take Nigeria for example, Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation. Estimates from the IMF put the informal sector’s contribution to the national GDP as high as 60%, providing employment for as many as 85% of the working population. More than 90% of retail (and related services) is provided by the informal sector. This will not be transforming any time soon into modern retail, even given the penetration of ICTs as projected by the Brookings report.

The African consumer market is not growing in isolation from the informal economy, nor are the impacts of digital commerce only influencing changes in consumer behaviour. A vast majority of these emerging consumer classes are directly involved in the informal sector, and any changes in their spending patterns and behaviour are bound to have corollaries in their commercial activities and business operations. The two are not two separate entities.

In fact, ICT penetration is changing the informal economy, particularly retail and wholesale trade. B2C sales and marketing facilitated by digital platforms are a contemporary reality, visible if you know where to look online. WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram offer scale and reach to enterprising entrepreneurs looking for new customers, and the proliferation of on demand apps for services such as car hailing are promoting wholly new business models for transportation and distribution. This is the current reality evidenced by any number of new startups announcing their arrival in the tech press in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and more.

What is not transforming as rapidly are the policies and regulations concerning formalization, and those barriers and costs still hold sway. Trade and services are still likely to remain within the informal sector even if their productivity and efficiency are being improved almost daily by the adoption of new and improved communication technologies. Viable pathways for their integration into the formal economy are few and far between. And, their progress and development is hampered by obsolete models and worldviews, as though they’re stuck in stasis.

It is this blindspot that makes the Brookings report at odds with the current landscape of the African operating environment for consumer oriented companies and global brands, particularly in the most promising markets highlighted such as Nigeria or Kenya, or even Angola.

The African consumer market cannot be considered in isolation, as though it’s on its own trajectory of evolution and development, separate and apart from the informal economy. Nor can one segment decline without having impact on the other. Their linkages and interdependencies are far too closely intertwined for that to happen. The rise of the African consumer class will remain linked to the health of the resilient and persistent informal economy for some time to come.

 

Further reading: How Africa Is Challenging Marketing, Harvard Business Review, June 2014

Africa’s Delivery On Demand Apps are Transforming the Informal Economy

When women in rural Rwanda can buy sanitary napkins and contraceptives, on demand, simply by pushing a few buttons on their phones, you know the digital informal economy is here to stay. And, its not just imported apps and social enterprises pushing this digital commercial activity. The “uberization” of the African informal economy is well underway across the entire continent, inspired in part by the visible success of the now ubiquitous ride hailing apps.

The concept of using your phone to access a product or service, on demand, has taken root as a viable and feasible business model for startups from Angola to Ghana to Nigeria, and Rwanda, of course. And, its spreading beyond the usual suspects to yet-to-be recognized nations like Somaliland as well as it’s far less stable neighbour, Somalia. The impact of this will be felt long after Uber itself has lived or died, as the case may be.

For the vast majority of the workforce in the informal sector, this approach to business development increases their reach and customer base, with net positive impact on their income streams and cash flows. You don’t have to sit and wait passively for a customer to show up if she or he can ping you for an order on your phone. Your discoverability has been exponentially boosted by technology.

Its far to early to gauge the impact on the entire informal economy’s productivity, but certain sectors are already evidencing the effects:

  1. Transportation – of people, of vegetables, of cargo – you name it, you can now find an app to transport it. Startups are responding to the wide variety of local needs in addition to launching Uber clones in their local metros and regions.
  2. Services – grocery shopping, laundry, housecleaning, plumbers, electricians, artisans et al – all of these are coming online, albeit unevenly across segments and geographies depending on the individual startups and their capabilities.
  3. Goods – From consumer products to fresh produce, live goats to tractors for rent; the low costs and barriers to entry of an app that collates and coordinates demand and supply is an easy win for entrepreneurs who can work out the kinks in their operations.

In addition to what the apps can deliver to your doorstep, this “uberization” of the informal economy is also transforming mindsets and behaviour, of both the buyer and the supplier. There are two approaches to leveraging technology to boost your business – doing it yourself via social media platforms, thus building your brand; and downloading an app that takes care of promotion and discoverability for you.

Each has its pros and cons, but from our earliest discoveries whilst conducting user research among social commerce merchants and customers in Kenya, we can see the differences emerge between traditional traders in the informal marketplace, and the tech savvy traders straddling the virtual and the real. Long established business development strategies that worked in the cash intensive informal economic ecosystem are being forced to transform in response to these tech enabled ‘interventions’- whether to the benefit of all is also too early to tell. But if the patterns of mobile phone adoption are any indication, there’s a tsunami of change underway.

The comparative global impact of Alibaba vs. Amazon

Alibaba Business School and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) brought 29 young entrepreneurs from 11 countries across Africa to the Alibaba campus in Hangzhou, China for the third eFounders Fellowship cohort.

Chinese corporate soft power influence is production driven, not consumption focused. Alibaba, the e-commerce giant with digital payment tentacles, has been graduating cohorts of young entrepreneurs from Asia and Africa this past year. This initiative is the outcome from Jack Ma’s seminal visit to Nairobi last year, when thousands of young Kenyans waited for him in the sun.

Photo Credit: Abdishakur Mohammed, July 2017, University of Nairobi grounds, Kenya

He talks about entrepreneurship in a digital world, and personally shows up to meet visiting cohorts to talk about taking the lessons learnt from e-commerce in the most challenging environments in China (rural, mobile, social) back home to their own not dissimilar operating environments.

Contrast this with the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Amazon these days – a desperate workforce unable to take a leak, afraid to lose their low waged jobs as worker bees in a humongous warehouse. It keeps prices down and the consumption that runs the billions flowing, but whom does it benefit beyond the shareholders?

It struck me when I saw the news about “Alibaba Global Leadership Academy” that Chinese soft power was increasingly about driving production and growth aka development along their entire value chain, even among putative new consumer markets, whilst the American model was still stuck in a consumption driven mindset of the 1980s first wave of globalization. Buy more cola, wear our jeans, use our credit card, say the American brands in Jakarta or Accra or Nairobi.

The difference in mindset is stark when you think about the tech giants of Silicon Valley looking to uplift with low cost connectivity and internet basics for free, and compare to the Chinese giants thinking about raising the purchasing power first. The english language media would have you believe its all about neo-colonialism for natural resources, but the recent shifts in tactics and strategy seem to imply a less demoralizing mindset than anything evidenced by charitable good works handing out goodies to the downtrodden. Because whatever the agenda, the bottomline will be that at end of the exercise there will be a group left inspired to build their own markets on their mobiles, versus a group left holding a palliative goodie.

“My experience here has shifted my thinking. Before, we were focused on pleasing the investors, but now I see the importance of putting our customers first, then my employees, then the investors,” said Andreas Koumato, 26, from Chad , the founder of Mossosouk, an e-commerce platform. “Let others [benefit], then later, we will gain.”

Production driven social impact is far more powerful than consumption driven. Human centered productivity even more so.

How do we make a business case for an innovative concept given the data scarcity for the African mass market?

Anzetse Were writes some thoughtful points on the challenges facing private sector innovation in Kenya, and Africa. Two of her points caught my attention, in particular:

With regards to the private sector, an interesting point raised is that innovation targeting it must have a business case for adoption otherwise the innovation won’t be absorbed. Innovation must demonstrate that the short-term inconvenience of adoption will pay off in the long term.
[…]
We have a real problem with information asymmetry and data bias. [… ] strategies for market penetration and sharing cannot be rolled out since the lack of data means the private sector doesn’t know where the market sits.

While Anzetse has specifically focused on the interface between the private and the public sector with regards to innovation, the points she brings up are nevertheless a challenge for either or both parties.

Size and value of the market opportunity for an innovation when data is scarce

Investors in innovation for new and untapped markets need the numbers to make sense of the opportunity. A dollar value and estimated size of the market are among the conventional metrics used to provide evidence of a return on their investment. How substantial is it?

In the African context, the mass market where the volumes can be found tends to be heavily biased towards the informal sectors, and still for the most part based on cash transactions. Textbook approaches to sizing and valuing the market space fall short without accessible and relevant data.

A few years ago, we were faced with a similar challenge for Village Telco, a social enterprise launching an innovative ICT device for low cost voice and data communication. They had developed the Mesh Potato,  a device for providing low-cost telephony and Internet in areas where alternative access either doesn’t exist or is too expensive. It is a marriage of a low-cost wireless access point capable of running a mesh networking protocol with an Analog Telephony Adapter.

They were looking to enter the Kenyan market, with the notion that the cyber cafe industry would make the best target audience for their device. Their investors wanted to know the size and value of the market opportunity prior to launching the product in Kenya. Although this happened just over 6 years ago, Kenya had already made a name for itself as a forward looking mobile phone market unafraid of experimentation.

Our challenge was two-fold: We were to look at 2nd and 3rd tier towns, not just Nairobi and Mombasa. Village Telco was looking to connect the unconnected. And we had to estimate the size and value of the market opportunity for a sector – internet cafes – that was primarily cash based and informal, particularly given the rural and small town geography we were considering. There was little or no data available to even get a handle on the number of cyber cafes operating in Kenya.

Secondly, we had to get an idea of the price point at which the product would be acceptable to this target audience. Keep in mind that the device was wholly unknown – an innovation – and there was nothing comparable on the market.

A qualitative approach to quantitative estimation

Given that this was not a conventional research project, and time and resources were constrained to a market analysis, we designed a minimal viable market discovery phase that would permit us to gather enough insights directly from the cyber cafe operators in order to estimate the size and value, as well as recommendations for pricing and market entry.

In late 2011, Kenya’s administrative divisions were still the original provinces.

Based on population density and relative income demographics, as well as an ICT gap analysis of voice and data services – reports available through Kenyan government institutions – we planned an optimal route that maximized exposure to the types of locations Village Telco had specified whilst sampling cyber cafes across a range of infrastructure access and regional income. This coverage was completed in less than 3 weeks.

Surfacing trends through indepth open ended interviews

Where we invested our time and effort was in identifying entrepreneurial and innovative cyber cafe operators in the smaller towns and villages we visited. The vast majority of internet cafes are run as side businesses by the owners who might be white collar employees or civil servants, and often managed by employees. It was the cyber cafe owner operator who saw their business as a growth opportunity that we were seeking.They not only knew their market but had seen the opportunities to grow and expand their services.

They were able to give us an idea of the future of the cyber cafe business in their region, a rough estimate (few businesspeople are willing to openly share revenue data) of the scale of their business, and the trends in decline or growth of the types of services they offered.

Through the data gathered, we were able to estimate the high growth regions for internet cafe services – Nakuru town for instance had seen the number of cybers grow from 10 or 15 in 2007 to upwards of 50, primarily due the increase in tertiary education institutions. Kilifi, on the Coast, had seen a doubling when a local university campus opened.

At the same time, we were able to gauge the value of the opportunity space by using the proxy of the proportion of owner/operators to manager/employees – the former were more likely to be interested in the Mesh Potato than the latter.

Our route planning also provided evidence of the pathways for innovation diffusion, outwards in a hub and spoke model from the central hub of Nairobi’s business district where new electronic products landed from the manufacturing centers of Asia.

Sitting down face to face with the cafe owners and showing them the product and what it could do gave us the insight on pricing and market entry strategy. By the end of 5 weeks from start to finish, we were able to make a business case for innovation meant for a data scarce environment.

Innovation means breaking new ground

While the effort on the ground was very different from a conventional market analysis exercise due to the need to elicit information directly on the market and the product, the time and resources invested by the client were no different from an analysis based on secondary sources and accessible data flows.

The nature of the African mass market is such that pioneers entering the market will have to break new ground, not only with their products and services, but also their approach to analyzing and evaluating the business case for investment. It is not an impossible task and should not be considered a barrier to entry.

How informal financial services can lower the barriers to formal financial inclusion

Around 2 and a half years ago, I was on a short visit to Abidjan, the capital of Cote D’Ivoire as a guest of the African Development Bank. They were holding an innovation weekend for young women and men in the Francophone West African region who were interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

David O. Capo Chichi, who used to work back then for MTN, a major telco very kindly took me around the informal markets on his day off and we got to talking to market women about their financial management habits. One interesting behaviour linking the informal with the formal came to light.

An established spice seller told us she had a savings account at the bank, but accessing the bank’s services were a huge barrier – the opening times ate into her business hours and the long wait times meant loss of income from potential customers. At the same time, because she was dependent on cash income from daily sales, it was more convenient for her to put a portion of money aside on a daily basis. So what she was doing was paying a tontine collector for the service of showing up at her shop everyday and collecting her small amount of cash set aside for savings. He would hold it safely for her for a month and then she would take the total saved up amount back from him, take the day off work and go deposit it in her bank account. That was the only way she could have the flexibility and negotiability that budgeting on her irregular cash flow required and still access the benefits of a secure safe interest earning savings account at the bank.

Now today I came across this article describing a pilot program in Benin where the private susu (small small) or tontinier, such as that used by the lady in Cote D’Ivoire, have been formalized into a more secure and insured service for the same demographic of informal market women and traders. There’s even a digital component that updates the accounts via the mobile phone.

“The reality is that we can’t be everywhere, and the Susu collectors are near the population. We have to work with them and find the best business model to get them into the formal system.”

Now, this exact same model being piloted by the MFI in Benin may not apply in exactly the same way elsewhere, depending on the conditions prevalent in the operating environment, but its clear that the structures and systems in place at the formal institution can be made more flexible and negotiable – given a “human face” – by working together with the pre-existing informal financial services already in operation.

This behaviour also resembles that seen among the informal cross border traders at the Uganda/Kenya borderland. Teresia who sells clothes under a tree has established a trusted relationship with her mobile money agent. He shows up at closing time to help her transfer her cash into mPesa, thus securing it for her and saving her both time and effort through this personalized service. Though she said she had an account at the bank, it lies dormant, for the same reasons given by the spice seller in Abidjan – “Who can afford to close shop during the day to spend hours at the bank?”

Innovations aimed at increasing inclusion for financial services need not always contain a digital component for them to make a difference for the customer, and lower the barriers to adoption and usage. All it takes is a deeper understanding of the challenges and constraints of the end user in the context of their day to day life.

Why does the prepaid model work so well and what are the lessons for business model innovation?

Increasingly, employment is becoming ad hoc and flexible. The gig economy and the informal sector share a common characteristic of incomes which are irregular and unpredictable, unlike the timely wages characteristic of formal employment. Both budgeting and planning thus become a challenge when there’s no predictable paycheck to rely on. Expenses are managed against cash flows to minimize volatility, and payments with calender deadlines become a challenge in planning.

It is in this scenario that the prepaid or pay as you go model works so well for the customer, one of the reasons why its ubiquity across the developing world drives the growth of mobile phones. It puts control over timing and amount of money spent in the hands of the user, allowing them juggle voice and data purchases against available cash in hand.

Here are the lessons for business model innovation applicable for a plethora of products and services, drawn from our decade of research into the financial frameworks underlying the operating environment characterized by unpredictability and volatility, and the success of the prepaid model.

Flexibility

The prepaid model is flexible. There is no rigid requirement on the amount that can be spent, beyond the voucher values of each telcom operator, nor are there periodic calender based deadlines such as those in a monthly bill. In Nigeria, traders have been found to top up their phones multiple times a week or even the same day, yet purchasing the smallest denomination of vouchers. High frequency of small amounts is a purchasing pattern that resembles their own cash flow while trading in the informal market. They don’t want to tie up their liquidity in airtime in case cash on hand is required for business, yet their trade is clearly dependent on mobile communication hence the frequent recharges.

This flexibility built into the business model clearly puts control over timing and amounts spent in the hands of the end-user who must manage a volatile cash flow situation.

Seasonality

In addition to the daily or weekly fluctuations in cash flow experienced by gig economy workers or those active in the developing country informal sectors, there are larger variations in income level over the course of the natural year. Unlike the regularity of a monthly salary, irregular incomes rise during peak seasons, such as festivals and holidays, and plunge during low seasons. Developing country economies are more closely linked to the seasonality of agriculture, given the greater proportion of the population’s dependence on farming. Incomes can vary as much as 300% for instance, for tea farmers in western Kenya’s Kisii region. Climatic effects also have greater impact on cash flows, and the current drought in East Africa is expected to depress livestock prices in the coming half year. On the upside, seasonal peaks in consumer durable sales are predictable as the regional harvest timings are a known factor. North India’s post harvest season in late October/November kickstarts an orgy of consumer spending during the festivals and the weddings which take place during this period.

Business models designed to take expected seasonal changes into account can minimize the dropout rate of customers when their income changes.

Liquidity

One of the biggest challenges we have wrapping our heads around when considering more rural or cash intensive economies is that liquidity is not equivalent to wealth, or even purchasing power. While this factor can apply to anyone relying on multiple income streams from a variety of sources, I’ll use the example of a small farmer to explain its importance to the design of business models.

The homestead is managed like an investment portfolio, with different sources of income maturing over different durations of time over the course of the natural year. This is also why control over Timing – frequency, periodicity – of payments, such as possible in the prepaid model, is so critical for the success of payment plans. A smartphone might be purchased after the major harvest of the annual cash crop, but its the daily cash from the sale of milk that would be used for recharges (and other basic necessities). Similarly, a calf may be purchased to fatten against the following year’s school fees.

Negotiability

This leads directly to a factor more relevant to heavily informal economies where variance in systems and structures means transactions are more human centered, depending on face to face communication, trusted references, and mutual compacts rather than legal contracts to enforce agreements. Negotiability of your business model, and its close relation, reciprocity – “the give and take” – is an element missing from faceless institutions that seek to serve this demographic.

This is one reason many prefer to seek solutions outside of formal banking institutions, for example, as their opening hours might not suit the trader’s business hours. In Busia, Uganda, most women traders had established trusted relationships with a mobile money agent, many of whom would show up at the end of the work day to assist the trader in transferring the cash earning safely onto the digital wallet. And, unlike the bank, the telco’s prepaid model allows customers to “negotiate” when and how much they’ll pay within the constraints of far more flexible terms and conditions than most other models.

A farmer has “purchased” this solar panel after coming to an agreement with the shopkeeper. He will pay off the total, over time, as and when he has spare cash, and collect the panel when payment is complete. There is no interest charge. The shopkeeper has put the farmer’s name on the panel but will keep hold of the item.

The greater the span of control over timing and amounts, the greater the success of the payment plan

The prepaid model bridges the critical gap between the predictable formal structures of the large institution and the dynamic challenges of the informal. The bottomline is that the flexibility, negotiability, and reciprocity of the model are more important factors for its success than the conventional understanding of permitting micropayments in advance. Numerous consumer product marketers entering emerging markets experienced this challenge when their micropayment hire purchase models failed customers who might have to miss one or two week’s payments due to illness or other emergencies – their products were repossessed without any recourse to adjustment. Its the rigid calender schedule embedded in a payment plan that is often the barrier to a high ticket purchase than the actual price itself.

None of these factors are insurmountable with today’s technology, and the field for business model innovation for irregular income streams such as those in the gig economy or the informal sector is still wide open for disruption.

Elements of Handpainted Graphic Design and Signage

The first time I went to Africa, my research companion, a South African designer, very apologetically mentioned the use of handwritten signage in his country. We were there on behalf of Samsung, and our global design research team included members from Seoul, Singapore, and Pretoria.

“Its all rather primitive over here” he said, but I fear my heart was captured.

Look at this signage and graphic design for a radio station in western Kenya. It has its own balance and harmony. It’s primitive only if you believe that fonts must generated by computers, and laser cut in acrylic before it can be used. Mass production is as modern as automation and takes away the unique beauty of the best of the signage that I’ve seen.

There will, of course, always be the aspirational ones, and the ambitious will do their best to satisfy. Some succeed very well indeed.

Look at this set of shops – each has its name written in a unique font, or handwriting style, while the whole still manages to convey the brand being advertised with a semblance of coherence. A true artist at work.

My favourite, however, is this one from the wall of an agro-vet dealer’s store. In a context where language and literacy tends to vary across a spectrum of facility, clearly communicating that you can get your cows artificially inseminated here is a bonus. The use of colour and the ombre backgrounds show the work of an artist.

And finally, this combination of a stencil – used for the desktop computer, and calligraphy – though the letter spacing may or may not have been deliberate, holds a position in its own right. That might not even be a stencil but the whole piece is crafted with care.

Why the African Consumer Market is NOT the same as the African Middle Class

Consumer goods store, Kilgoris, Kenya (March 2012)

The biggest challenge faced by consumer facing companies looking at the African Consumer Market is the age old positioning of the “middle class” as the ideal target audience. This middle class is segmented by the same attributes as the original middle classes who formed the consumer markets of the developed world.

This is the outside of the same store. Its located in a town called Kilgoris, situated at the edge of densely populated Kisii in western Kenya, and the sparse land of the nomadic Maasai pastoralists.

When you consider the range, the variety, and the price of the products displayed for sale, and compare it to the small dusty town with just one modern building, you wouldn’t imagine that solar panels worth USD 200 or Sony Bravia flatscreen TVs would be selling like hotcakes. But they do.

No dealer in a heavily cash based consumer market such as upcountry Kenya would tie up his working capital in expensive consumer electronics if there wasn’t a demand for it that meant the products sold quickly enough to keep the cash flowing in. My assumptions were completely upturned by this shopkeeper’s insights – it was the Maasai making purchases after attending the weekly livestock market.

A maasai manyatta Source: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/tag/maasai-mara-game-reserve/

They’d pack 6 foot long solar panels, flat screen TVs, and satellite dishes onto the tops of hired trucks and take them off to their thornbush and mud manyattas. Yet neither you nor I would classify them by any of the traditional marketing department’s attributes as being part of the “middle class” consumer segment.

On the other hand, they were undeniably part of the African consumer market, and as the shopkeeper informed us, they were not only willing to spend on their homes, regardless of what they looked like from the outside, they could afford the best that he had to offer. He showed us his entire stock of kitchen appliances, water filters, jugs, mugs, and even children’s toys and fake flowers from Dubai! It is dealers like this who know best what their customers want and they range as far away as Nairobi to obtain the products in demand.

But I wonder if the marketers and the analysts still seeking the middle class have a clue about this huge market invisible to their eyes? And, whether, they’re looking in the right places?

The Strategic Entry of China’s Transsion into the Vacuum Left by Nokia in Africa

Branded storefront in Karatina, Kenya (April 2013)

If you’re outside Africa, you’ve never heard of them before, but a mobile phone brand called Tecno has been painting Kenya blue ever since I started fulltime fieldwork there in late 2011. It was in Mombasa that I first noticed the name and wondered what it was about. Over the years, I saw the line up of phones even in the smallest market towns and began wondering if this brand would be the new Nokia of Africa.

Transsion, Tecno’s manufacturer, has two other brands on the market – Itel, and Infinix catering to different price points and consumer segments. What sets the company apart is that they are solely focused on the African continent and do not even sell in their domestic market of China. This was a strategic decision, as a recent article says, and their rapid success very likely due to the vacuum left by Nokia. They’ve customized completely for the African market, going as far as to develop cameras suited for local conditions, something no other phone manufacturer has done anywhere on the planet.

“For African consumers, a main medium of entertainment is photos – they love to take selfies and share them with friends. The traditional camera was not optimised for the African consumer because often, for those with darker skin, the photos don’t come out well especially in low light. We did research using over 10,000 photos of African consumers to create a special algorithm to optimise the camera to attract 30% more light on the darker face. We call this ‘Africa Focus’. It’s been heavily popular. It improved our cameras and won the hearts of Africans who like to take selfies.

In fact, Itel is so popular among traders in the Uganda Kenya borderland due to its low price and long battery life, that our research associate went as far as to capture the mound of Itel packaging seen on the rubbish heap.

They’ve brought in local languages and messenger apps. They’ve established a factory in Ethiopia to show their commitment to Africa, and they’ve set a full customer care facility – something glaringly missing from any other imported brand’s portfolio.

In my opinion, they’ve done what Nokia could have and should have done, cater to the emerging markets across the developing world where they’d originally begun connecting people.

And, they’ve shown us that it is indeed possible for a consumer product manufacturer to not only focus solely on the African consumer market but to make an outstanding success of it.

Update:

Quartz echoed the story to share the factoid that in Africa, not only have featurephones sold more than smartphones but Transsion’s brands lead the way.