According to GSMA, there were 250 million smartphone connections in Sub-Saharan Africa as at the ending of 2017. There's potential smartphone penetration growth considering that there are currently over a billion people living in the region.
For many Africans, smartphones are one of the first points of connecting to the internet. Increasing affordability will fuel this growth potential while also increasing internet penetration.
However, thanks to their relative affordability and durability, feature phones are increasing playing an instrumental role in connecting even more Africans to the internet.
According to the IDC, there was 8.7% year-on-year increase in the volume of feature phones shipped to Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) in 2017 while that of smartphones to the same region dropped by 3.5%.
Evidently, feature phones are showing a strong resurgence in Africa. And in the past few months, companies in Africa have been intensifying their efforts at increasing mobile penetration on the continent by introducing ‘smart’ feature phones.
At the recently concluded Mobile World Congress in Spain, Orange Telecoms Group unveiled a smart feature phone, Sanza which is expected to retail for $20 and be available in its African markets, starting with Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.
Just shortly after Orange’s unveiling, the Nigerian unit of the MTN Group launched the MTN Smart T -- a 'smart' feature phone -- which is retailing for ₦8,000 (about $22).
The South African telecom group also revealed plans to launch an instant messaging app for Africans that supports both smart and feature phones. This seems to be a calculated move for MTN considering its recent $22 smart feature phone.
OneFi, the company behind consumer lending app Paylater which recently secured $5 million debt facility in its quest to becoming a digital banking platform will, in a few months, be deploying its new services using Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) as one of the channels.
One of the selling points of USSD is that it works on any phone. OneFi claims that the addition of the USSD service is to onboard non-smartphone users. This happens to be the same reason why these smart features phone are coming into the continent.
All these point to the fact that there is actually a future for feature phones in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although smartphones are becoming cheaper in Africa with sub $50 devices, companies are also bringing feature phones that support social media and instant messaging apps into the market, most of which are sub $25.
As at Q1 2018, feature phones accounted for 60.8% of Africa’s total mobile phone market. With the new smart feature phones that are coming into the market, there’s the likelihood that the figure will keep increasing.
Beyond the obvious lower prices and durability, these smart feature phones have the potential to serve as stepping stones for Africans that never owned a smartphone before to get online, which still serves a win for the continent.