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6 Things Mara Phones Need To Get Right To Make A Dent In Africa’s Burgeoning Smartphone Market

Earlier this week, I was delighted to see the media coverage around Mara Phones of Rwanda launching Africa’s first and currently only smartphones built from the ground up, in Africa. This means that quite possibly for the very first time we have the technical expertise and advanced production capabilities to make smartphones from the continent, for the continent, and beyond.

What Mara Phones is doing is a truly noble thing from an African, and, global perspective. Indeed, smartphones sit at the epicenter of the modern African lifestyle and workstyle. In a continent where we never had a computer revolution, we jumped from nothing to the mobile revolution, in a heartbeat.

Everything in Africa is mobile-first, from basic communications to commerce, and everything else in between. Therefore, it seems to me that to have smartphones made in Africa for Africa and the rest of the world is a vision worth realizing, whatever the cost or challenges to do so.

However, make no mistake, the odds are against Mara Phones to succeed and it will be daunting but not an impossible mission. There are formidable hurdles to overcome and many tough lessons along the way. Indeed, here are the 6 things that I think that Mara Phones need to get right to have a prayer at making a dent in Africa’s burgeoning smartphone market.

Brand

Just as mobile is everything in Africa, the brand is the reason for everything Mara Phones does. Why do Mara Phones exist? What does the Mara Phones brand stand for? Why should one buy a Mara Phone when there are so many affordable alternatives in the African marketplace?

Just ask the Apple aficionado in me and I can clearly tell you why I love all things Apple makes. In my opinion, Apple constantly challenges the status quo and brings the future forward by creating beautifully designed products that constantly reset consumer expectations. I completely subscribe to Apple as a brand for these reasons.

Since a smartphone is one of the most personal brands we ever buy or own, and becomes a reflection of who we are, we need to truly love it as a brand above and beyond the functional utility it offers us as a user. Ultimately, a smartphone, in many ways, from a branding perspective, becomes an intrinsic extension of who we are as a person, Think about that for a second. Nuff said.

Right now, the truth be said, and since its really early days, the raison d’être for Mara Phones is yet to be fully appreciated as they have only started rolling out production. However, at this inception phase, we need to know, more than ever, why! This is what will drive the go-to-market strategy and also tactical marketing campaigns. If the brand fails to appeal to the intended consumer nothing will happen no matter how much money is spent on marketing.


Pricing

Africa, given our consumer market dynamics, is a price-sensitive market so great value for money normally sits at the heart of all purchase decisions. Yes, branding is important but we, as a continent, and a consumer market, look for great value for money at every turn. This is Africa, after all.

A cautionary tale for Mara Phones, which they must be fully aware of, is the 800-pound Gorilla called Transsion Holdings – the Chinese mobile manufacturing group behind Africa’s super popular Tecno, Infinix and Itel. As of this writing, Transsion Holdings is Africa’s largest seller of mobile devices on the continent.

Transsion Holdings have achieved this position by offering smartphones at every conceivable price point and in each instance typically being feature-rich, functionally excellent, well designed and contextually relevant for the African consumer. Looking at the Mara Phones website, the pricing for the mid-range Mara X is US$ 159.00 whilst the high-er end Mara Z is US$ 229.00. These seem expensive to me relative to cheaper imported Chinese smartphones.

10 years ago, in Africa, the phone market was dominated by the likes of Samsung and Nokia. However, during the last decade or so, Transsion Holdings have slowly but surely chipped away by launching iteration after iteration of smartphones that have great product-market fit with affordable pricing being the key factor. It is from this perspective that Samsung and Nokia got disrupted.

Product

It goes without saying that in addition to having great pricing for their smartphones, Mara Phones also need to essentially have a product offering that can go head-to-head with the likes of brands like Samsung, Nokia, Infinix, Tecno and Itel. This is a truly daunting prospect since the product quality of their competitors is really good and they have a massive headstart across the board.

I have to confess that I did not take an in-depth look at the specifications and product quality of the Mara Phones two smartphones at launch but my first impressions left me somewhat underwhelmed? I noticed that for instance that neither device had multiple rear-facing cameras that have now become de facto for most smartphones from brands like Samsung, Infinix, Tecno and Itel as seen on Jumia. This could a huge factor in driving sales.

At the end of the day, the product is what consumers will buy and if the product does not live up to expectations then nothing will work. This is so essential for Mara Phones success it hurts since beyond having a great brand and marketing strategy, nothing will work if the product sucks. True. Story.

Distribution

A well-structured distribution network is essential for Mara Phones success in Africa. What this means is having as many retailers stocking and selling your product in every conceivable part of the continent so that it is readily available to all consumers. There is a reason why Transsion Holdings has been so successful – they created a solid distribution channel on the continent.

I am not sure how far along Mara Phones is with the process of building a distribution channel that connects to all the major retailers such as supermarkets and small retail shops but this will be essential. In Kenya, for instance, hooking up with Safaricom and Jumia is a no-brainer since it can exponentially drive sales.

I do love the fact that Mara Phones can be purchased from their website as a direct-to-consumer channel with delivery anywhere within the continent within a week but that will take time to build up and additional costs like taxes could further increase pricing if they are not stocked locally in a major market like Kenya.

Support

One of the areas where many manufacturers of smartphones go wrong in Africa is not providing solid after-sales service and customer support. It’s no good buying a smartphone if you know that getting a replacement for a cracked screen could take months to happen.

Therefore, having localized and ‘on the ground’ after-sales service and customer support is probably the single most important factor for many smartphone owners who have had their fingers burned in the past. Case in point is when the Tecno and Infinix brands first launched in Kenya they did not have spare parts and customer support was non-existent but over the years they sorted this out and this is no longer a major issue for them.

At this juncture, it is not yet known if Mara Phones is establishing service and support centers in key smartphone markets like Kenya and Nigeria but given that they have the ability to produce 1,200+ phones per day I am sure this is something that is top-of-mind for them if they have any chance of long-term success in the African marketplace.

Partnerships

Lastly, strategic partnerships will be pivotal for Mara Phones success in Africa. In the context of Kenya, for instance, they need partnerships with the likes of Safaricom so as to ensure that they leverage their massive marketing and logistical capabilities. They could work with financing companies like LipaLater and Aspira who can help consumers finance smartphone purchases.

Mara Phones could also explore B2B sales with cooperatives, corporates and other intermediaries with all sorts of juicy incentives for end-users. In a nutshell, what this means is looking at all sorts of ways to get their devices to consumers via strategic partnerships that have a win-win aspect.

Heck, they could even work directly with African Governments to ensure Mara Phones become the ‘official’ work smartphone for civil servants. This is Africa so anything and everything goes to support a homegrown smartphone brand. Ultimately, if we can’t support our own, who will?

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