MTN’s $25 “smart feature phone” will bring arguably 3rd most popular mobile OS to Africa

by | Nov 26, 2018

Featured image is the Nokia ‘Banana’ 8110 using the KaiOS operating system which MTN’s phones will run on.

Ever since feature phones made something of a comeback against smartphones in 2017, many consumer brands have been grappling to take advantage of this anomaly for the mass market. One of the most recent of them is MTN. The South African based mobile network recently announced a range of “smart feature phones” that will start retailing in South Africa and Nigeria in Q1 2019.


MTN’s old ‘kpalasa’ campaign aimed at incentivising low-income Nigerians to upgrade to a smartphone

Before now, MTN has been aggressively pushing to get more Africans on the smartphone train. Even as recently as March 2017, the telco partnered with Google to make dirt cheap Android smartphones available for low-income Africans. The project however didn’t live up to the longevity it seemed to promise.

That failure explains MTN’s sudden shift in strategy from smartphone to feature phones. But such a bold move can only happen thanks, in no small part, to the rise of KaiOS, a relatively new mobile operating system (OS) that brings some of the best parts of the smartphone experience — 4G connectivity, NFC, virtual assistants, GPS, apps — to feature phones without compromising on the optimum cost and battery efficiency that has made them popular among low-income earners.


No mean feat, this innovation has seen KaiOS silently become arguably the world’s third most popular mobile OS — behind Android and iOS — in the space of barely a year since in it launched in 2017.

KaiOS has become so popular that it forced Google to invest $22m in it this June. Not only that, the search giant has also re-purposed some of its most popular apps like Google Assistant, YouTube and Google Maps for the OS.

kaisos nokia banana

Google Assistant on the Nokia ‘Banana’ 8110 feature phone. Image: Screenshot from ‘How KaiOS Is Becoming the 3rd Major Mobile OS‘.

Facebook is not left out, progressive web versions of Facebook and WhatsApp (limited) are also available on the KaiOS platform.

Oddly enough, the exponential growth of KaiOS has nothing to do with Africa and almost everything to do with India, where it is said to have overtaken Apple’s iOS to become the second most popular OS in the country.

Indian OEM brand, Jio Phone — the widely-acclaimed poster child for KaiOS — has already sold over 40 million devices globally, with projections to sell 100 million units by the end of 2018.

It’s no wonder that MTN is looking to replicate that success by being technically the first brand to bring KaiOS to Africa. It will not be attempting this alone. Hardware partnerships have already been sealed with Chinese companies like China Mobile and Unisoc to manufacture the phone hardware and chipset.

When MTN’s smart feature phones start shipping in 2019, they will come in 2 options — a 3G-enabled $20 variant and a $25 4G-enabled one.

Múyìwá Mátùlúkò
Múyìwá Mátùlúkò

Chief Servant. I bully myself because I make me do what I put my mind to.


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