A phone is a phone is a phone. The smartphone industry forms a significant base of social and economic activity in Africa. According to a November 2013 report by McKinsey on telecommunications and internet access in Africa, there are 67 million smartphones in use across the continent. One of the main complaints raised by smartphone users is that of the battery-life of the devices. The longevity is typically cited as an issue of concern, more so on a continent where access to regular electricity is not always consistent. In comes Dr Thabo Lehlokoe, founder of Seemahale Telecoms, a local telecommunications equipment manufacturer.
Seemahala is about to launch the first South African manufactured smartphones and tablets. The devices are set to compete with the likes of Samsung and Nokia. However, according to Seemahala the devices will be tailored to African needs. Lehlokoe stated that ‘longevity of the batters is very important, given [the] target market. It’s not people who have access to power all the time.’ Seemahala built the devices cognisant that there need to be certain features appropriate for a continent where a relative lack of home computers or fixed-line telephones means that most people interact with the internet from their phones, and charging their devices may present difficulties. With a billion-strong population that is growing rapidly, incomes that are rising, the potential for this market to grow is significant. In the words of Lehlokoe, ‘it just didn’t seem right that there are hundreds of millions of phones in Africa, none of which are actually manufactured here. Not because of anything other than the fact that everybody tended to think that it is cheaper to do these things in China.’
On the technicality of the phone, it will look similar to the Samsung Galaxy S4 and will run on Google’s Android operating system. The smartphone will retail around R2500, not far off the range of a Sony Xperia Go, which with a similarly rated processor retails around R2899. The locally manufactured phone will have a 5-inch touchscreen and most importantly, 2 250mAh battery, which translates into a day’s worth of talk time. The devices, comprising two smartphones models and two tablets, are built at a factory in Boksburg. The company imports printed circuit boards from Taiwan and China. However, placement of all the components, the housing assembly, the manufacture of cables and accessories, and the printing of manuals will and packaging is done in South Africa. Seemahale is looking to have the capacity to produce 150 000 smartphones or the 10.1-inch tablets it intends to produce, retailing for R3 500 a month. They further hope to have their first products go on sale within months. Recognising that the smartphones will cost substantially less than high-end devices, Lehlokoe affirmed that they are not ‘skimping on the specs’. There is abig gap in the market between ultra low-cost handsets and high-end smartphone models, he said, but consumers want a decent phone with decent specs but at a competitive price.
Seemahale is currently going through two processes. The first is having its devices undergoing regulatory tests, as per legal requirements. The second is that it has already engaged with one of the South African operators to test their phones on their network. The phones are designed in such a way that they can be rebranded by the operators with their own respective logos. This means that no particular operator is excluded from acquiring the devices. The company is hoping that being one of the few black-owned entities to operate in this space will help to gain them a foot into the market share. They also hope to enter into the continental African market with their products. As Lehlokoe said, ‘we want Africans to be proud that they can do this themselves, and not just be consumers of everyone else’s solutions.’
At the 2014 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Ericsson chief executive officer Hans Vestberg said that if the average price of smartphones came down by about R110 ($10), 100 million more people could have access to the devices. Research conducted by Ericsson ConsumerLab found that smartphones as cheap as R600 ($50) could help bridge the digital divide in Africa. This goes to show that the work by Seemahale is significant on a number of levels. It will provide home-grown solutions to technological problems, provide opportunities for employment, drive innovation, and most importantly, provide evidence that Africans can do it for themselves, and do it well.