Kenyan President William Ruto has stated his administration’s intention to manufacture Africa’s cheapest smartphone within the next 12 months. Speaking at an event earlier this month, Ruto said the low-cost device will ensure all Kenyans have digital access to government services and business platforms.
The Kenyan government is in discussions with manufacturers to develop a device costing less than KES5,000 (about US$40). Just under 60% of Kenya’s population of 57 million had at least one mobile subscription by the end of 2021, most of which are feature phones; smartphones account for only 45% of devices. Smartphone sales are dominated by Asian brands such as Tecno, Samsung, Oppo, Huawei and Infinix.
Latiff Cherono, general manager for operations at Gearbox Europlacer – an electronics hardware maker in Nairobi – believes it is unlikely Kenya will be able to produce a 100% locally made smartphone within this timeframe as it typically takes years to develop and certify a new smartphone design. He maintains the quickest path would be to license an existing model from an original design manufacturer (ODM). Components such as screens; printed circuit board assemblies (PCBA), also known as motherboards; and batteries would likely also need to be imported in the short term. While Gearbox Europlacer does produce low-volume PCBAs in Kenya, establishing a facility able to manufacture thousands of units per day would take a long time.
Assembling components produced elsewhere may be the most realistic way for Kenya to realise low-cost smartphone ambition in the short term. The country has experience in this regard through its Digital Literacy Programme, which involved the local assembly of tablets for primary school pupils. It is relatively easy to train workers in basic assembly skills and it has the potential to create meaningful employment. For instance, India’s mobile phone manufacturing industry has generated hundreds of thousands of jobs in that country.
Several outfits have tried smartphone manufacturing in Africa with various levels of success. China’s Transsion – maker of the Tecno, Infinix and Itel brands – has been assembling phones in Ethiopia for over a decade. A few years ago, South African brand Mobicel moved the assembly of certain models from abroad to a plant on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Egypt, too, has attracted interest from brands such as Samsung, Vivo, Oppo and Nokia, which are all at different stages of producing smartphones in the North African country.
However, there have been numerous manufacturing failures, including the Mara Phones factory outside Durban, South Africa, which launched in 2019 with significant funding from public and commercial lenders. The factory was recently acquired by new investors after its original Dubai-based owners cited a lack of uptake for its products, fewer than anticipated government tenders and the Covid-19 lockdown as reasons for its closure.
If Kenya manages to get low-cost smartphone manufacturing right, it has the option to export devices to the broader continent, especially as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) gains traction. However, Cherono says the government should look beyond low-cost phones and use this venture to build long-term capacity in electronics hardware manufacturing capacity to move further up the value chain.
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