Tag Archives: SMS

Across Africa the Feature Phone is Not Dead – Your Weekend Long Reads


Quartz Africa reports that last year feature phones took back market share from smartphones in Africa. The market share of smartphones fell to 39% in 2017 (from 45%), while feature phones rose to 61% (from 55%).

Quartz Africa sees the reasons as likely to be twofold: first, the growth of big markets, like Ethiopia and DR Congo, which until recently have had relatively low penetration. Second, low price.

Transsion, a little-known Chinese handset manufacturer, now sells more phones than any other company in Africa. It’s three big brands outnumber Samsung’s market share there. The devices are cheap and appealing for new users.

The FT reports that Transsion’s phones are specifically designed for the African market: they have multiple sim-card slots, camera software adapted to better snap darker skin tones, and speakers with enhanced bass (seriously). Many of the feature phone models have messaging apps. The batteries remain on standby for up to 13 days!

What does this mean? That you should freeze your flashy new app project? No! There’s no need to stop planning and developing for a smartphone-enabled Africa. The trend is clear: smartphones become cheaper over time and their uptake increases.

But we know that in Africa, especially, mobile usage is unevenly distributed and these stats are a good reminder that the non-smartphone user base is still huge. Many of us need to remain true to that reality if we want our ICT to be 4D.

The age old question – which mobile channel should we focus on? – has not gone away. And the answer still remains the same: it depends. What is your service? What devices do your users have? What are their usage preferences? Do they have data coverage and, if yes, can they afford data?

Low tech, like IVR and radio, can be beautiful and extremely effective. In a meta-study of education initiatives in Africa, the Brookings Institute found that most technology-based innovations utilize existing tools in new ways. They give Eneza Education as an example, which built its service on SMS (even though there is now an Android app available).

At the same time, apps are certainly rising in the development sector. While not in Africa, the Inventory of Digital Technologies for Resilience in Asia-Pacific found apps to be the dominant channel. From my own experience I’m seeing more apps, often as one part of a mix of delivery channels.

A forthcoming case study in the UNESCO-Pearson initiative is MOPA, a platform for participatory monitoring of waste management services in Maputo, Mozambique. Citizens report issues via USSD, website and, most recently, via Android app.

Usage patterns show that 96% of reports are still sent through USSD, 3% via mobile app, and only 1% through the website. Given that specific user base, and the quick-and-dirty nature of the transaction, it’s not surprising that USSD is a clear winner.

Another example of a channel mix is Fundza, the South African mobile novel library. It started life as a mobisite and now also has an app, which largely provides a window into the same content just in a nice Android skin.

The app is used by less than 1% of users, with the mobisite taking the lion’s share of traffic (via feature phone and smartphone). Fundza is also on Free Basics, where the breakdown is quite different: 65% mobisite, 45% app (perhaps pointing to the benefits of being bundled into someone else’s very well-marketed app).

There are many reasons why individual apps may or may not succeed, and these examples are not meant to downplay their utility. Overall, the world is going to smartphones.

However, the bottom line is that you should not write off the humble feature phone in Africa just yet. It does old tech very well, internet messaging and the mobile web, which for many ICT4D projects is still their bread and butter access channel.

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