Archive for the ‘perfect storm’ Category

The role of the grey market in Africa’s mobile telephony boom years

The grey market refers to goods which have been manufactured by or with the consent of the brand owner, but are sold outside of the brand owner’s approved distribution channels – which can be perfectly legal. (1)

In Africa’s teeming business districts and electronics mega markets, the concept of grey market products underwent an evolution over the past two decades as it reflected the development and eventual maturity of the mobile phone market. Always, however, price arbitrage drove the parallel industry.

In the beginning, grey market products were those that met the conventional definition I’ve shared above from Investopedia. Because the majority of the African continent – barring North Africa and South Africa which were considered more investment worthy – was initially overlooked as a target audience for the world’s branded mobile phone manufacturers, African traders and merchants would source products from the Gulf – Dubai being a key hub for re-exports in consumer electronics – or ‘fairly used’ phones from the then more advanced European countries.

Thus, by the time Samsung’s Mobile division woke up to the opportunity in sub Saharan Africa about a decade after the first introductions of cellular telephony, they discovered Samsung devices being sold openly in markets they had not officially entered as yet. The challenge for them, back then, was that these handsets tended to be European models, and not really engineered to hold up under more adverse African conditions. Not only was the grey channel capturing marketshare that should have been theirs but potentially negatively impacting their brand as more fragile than the notoriously durable Nokias which were popular ‘fairly used’ models for that very reason.

The secondhand and refurbished phone market provided the necessary affordability for far more people than just the rich or upper middle class who could afford the phones and models then being sold in sub Saharan Africa.

It was only the completely unexpected great surge of growth around 2002-4 that spotlighted clearly the latent and untapped mass market opportunity for low cost mobile devices, and the trend began to develop a phone “for Africa”. Motorola won the the GSM Association’s first grant for low cost phones, priced at around $30, in 2005, but was ironically never to achieve the exponential sales and success of Nokia.

By 2009, the grey market came to mean counterfeit as cheap Chinese phones flooded the market thanks to informal traders flying to and fro from Hong Kong with suitcases stuffed with handsets. Back then, coherent brands had not yet emerged from China’s factories, and I owned a dual sim NKIAC with lots of bells and whistles as a souvenir. They were known to have their problems but offered a trade off for the aspirational owner to be – an affordable entry point online, until an established brand could be purchased.

Around 2011, however, the Chinese OEMs had woken up to the African market’s sustained double digit growth in both device sales, as well as new subscribers of mobile services. And, jumped on the Android bandwagon, sensing a boom on the horizon as big brands dithered.

This was the turning point that was to change everything about the mobile telephony ecosystem in sub Saharan Africa – Nokia’s fade out, the rise and subsequent dominance of Transsion Holdings with low cost yet branded smartphones, paving the way for the smartphone and app economy maturing rapidly across the entire continent today.

In a way, it was also the end of the gray market in terms of fakes and counterfeits, as connectivity and social media demands required functioning operating systems and apps.

In another, the original grey market, as defined, came back to it’s role in providing affordability to the aspirational and ambitious, and in Nigeria, is credited with bringing about the smartphone revolution, just as it boosted the original mobile telephony transformation of the previous decade.

Mobile Phones and the Informal Economy

Western Kenya, June 2012

Over the past week or so, I’ve been scanning literature from African researchers on the broad theme of mobile phones and the informal economy. Here are some of my top findings:

  1. The Mobile Phone is a Business Tool and Income Generator – Regardless of the region (and cultural context) of study –  Cameroon or Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya or Botswana or Tanzania; and, regardless of whether the research methodology was quantitative or qualitative, respondents across the board considered their mobile phones as a critical capital expense for running their business, important for boosting efficiency, productivity, and incomes. In these studies focusing on the informal economy, respondents were micro and small enterprises, most often owned and operated by a single individual.
  2. Mobile phones and cellular services opened entirely new avenues of employment, particularly for youth – More visible in the earlier years of Africa’s mobile revolution, but still important enough today, are the new avenues that the ecosystem and infrastructure opened up for young people.  A slew of supporting services such as airtime sales, voucher sales, mobile money agencies, phone sales, download services, call booths, et al each had their day in the sun as a promising new way to tap into the double digit growth sustained by African mobile markets in the past two decades.  Most notably, mobile phone repair shops stand out as a whole new career path enabled by cutting edge technology. And, some of the best known hardware and software hackers went on to bigger things.
  3. Mobile money agents preferred to banks – Studies on this theme – if they were conducted where mobile money had reached critical mass – noted that mobile money agents were often considered as “one of us” by informal sector businesspeople as compared to forbidding requirements and investment in time required by banks. Mobile money agents were located conveniently in the same markets, often in neighbourhood shops, were open for longer and more convenient hours, and even on weekends. They were definitely more flexible and accommodating of the needs of informal sector commercial activity, and often a critical part of the business person’s network than any bank.

These three things caught my attention as showing up over and over again the literature, regardless of whether it was a PhD dissertation, an academic’s paper, or an MBA student’s thesis.

References:

The diffusion and Impact of Mobile Phones on the Informal Sector in Kenya (2010) – Wakari Gikenye and Dennis Ocholla

The role played by the informal economy in the appropriation of ICTs in urban environments in West Africa (2008) – CHENEAU-LOQUAY, Annie

The Economic and Social Effects of Mobile Phone Usage: The Case of Women Traders in Accra (2015) – Dissertation, Yvette A. A. Ussher

Mobile phones in the transformation of the informal economy: stories from market women in Kampala, Uganda (2016) – Caroline Wamala Larsson & Jakob Svensson

Cell Phone Repairers in Cameroon, 2000-2013 (2015) – Walter Gam Nkwi