Africa’s Largest Mobile Network To Sell $25 ‘Smart Feature Phone’

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A new attempt at giving emerging markets a cheap smartphone – this time costing about $25 – was launched by MTN, Africa’s largest cellular operator, in a partnership with China Mobile, chipmaker Unisoc and feature phone operating system KaiOS.

Calling it “the world’s first 3G smart feature phone,” MTN CEO Rob Shuter said the device will beginning selling in the first quarter of next year in Nigeria and South Africa first, which are its biggest markets. MTN has 225,4 million subscribers in 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Shuter said it is a “wonderful bridge device” for the vast number of Africans who still use feature phones because they cannot afford smartphones.

“This initiative contributes to the achievement of one of our key goals to provide affordable data enabled handsets to our customers, and by so doing, remove some of the barriers to mobile internet adoption in Africa,” he said at a press briefing at the annual AfricaCom conference in Cape Town.

“This device is very familiar to our 150-million customers who are not yet on a smartphone. It has a keyboard, it doesn’t have a touchscreen, and a very long battery life, which is important for many of our customers that still struggle for regular recharging of devices.”

Of the partnership, he added: “Our collaboration has been to design the world’s first 3G smart feature phone”. It will run a feature phone operating system called KaiOS that is used by 50-million handsets in emerging markets and can run on handsets like the Nokia 8110 4G.

The phone will have dual-SIM functionality, which is important in Africa where people often have SIM cards for different networks, and take advantage of competing specials for data and airtime or to make cheaper on-network calls. It has Bluetooth, GPS, a 2.4-inch screen and a large 2,000mah battery. It will be made by China Mobile.

Earlier Shuter used his keynote address to say MTN would reintroduce its Mobile Money into South Africa.

Mobile Money (MoMo) was widely hailed when it launched in 2012, allowing people to open rudimentary bank accounts at supermarket chain Pick n Pay and Boxers stores with the South African Bank of Athens. But, like Vodacom’s attempt at introducing M-Pesa into both cellular giant’s home market, MTN shut down its South African MoMo in the same year, 2016.

But on the rest of the continent, MTN has 24.1-million active MoMo users in 14 countries at the end of June.

“Many operators have tried many times with mobile money in SA, MTN amongst them,” he said. “But if you look at everything we have learned across the markets, where it is scaling in the other markets, we believe this is a service that is really competing with cash, but you have to find the pockets of the population that are still predominantly transacting in cash and give them an easy, affordable and high-quality service, and we really believe MTN Mobile Money can still work very well in South Africa.”

I write about how innovation is better in Africa. I define innovation as solving problems, like the real problems we have in Africa. And solving those problems solves them for the rest of the world. Africa isn’t just mobile-first, it’s mobile-only. I spoke about this at TED… MORE
Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff magazine. Based in Johannesburg, his TED talk on innovation in Africa has had more than 1.4m views.

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