Skip to main content

NAIROBI, Kenya – The launch of two new phones at the bottom end of the price and feature scale doesn’t tend to impress the smartphone cognoscenti too much. So we decided to ask Kenneth Oyolla, Nokia’s general manager for Eastern and Southern Africa to shed some light on their importance to the people in the region and to Nokia.

Nokia Conversations: Your region covers Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola and Zambia. Can you shed some light on the mobile landscape in those countries?

Kenneth Oyolla: The region has a population of around 120 million people, so obviously there’s a lot of variation, but I can give a general overview. The first thing to know is that people in this region are generally very poor. We’re talking about an average annual income of $800, and obviously there are lot of people earning much less than that.

The split between smartphone owners and ordinary mobile owners is also very different to what you’re used to in Europe. Here, 85 per cent of mobile owners have ordinary phones; only 15 per cent with smartphones. But that’s not the big picture. The real shock for you guys is that there’s only 35 per cent mobile penetration across the region, full stop: 65 per cent of our people are not connected at all.

One more thing on the general picture: the split between rural and urban is very different to the Northern Hemisphere. The majority of people here – 70 to 75 per cent – live in rural areas, and live off the land. That brings its own challenges with regard to signal coverage and power supplies.

NC: So what makes the Nokia 101 and Nokia 100 so important to the region?

KO: The price point is an obvious answer, but there are cheap phones from our competitors. So that’s not the real importance. The first reason that people come to Nokia here is the robustness of the devices. I remember going to one group of customers and asking them why they buy Nokia. One man held up his phone and dropped it straight onto the hard concrete floor. The back flew off and the battery came out. But then he calmly picked up the pieces and put them back together again – his phone was fine. “There,” he said. “That is why I buy Nokia.”

This is a rough part of the world. Things get knocked about. It’s dusty and there are hard edges. But our phones are built to withstand that. They’re made of tough materials and they’re dust resistant – they’ll last you a long time.

That’s very true of the Nokia 101 and Nokia 100 – these phones are specially made to withstand a lot of punishment.

The second reason they are important is that 60 per cent of our people live outside the electric grid. Many of those don’t have power every day. So a great battery life isn’t just convenient, it’s absolutely vital.

A third big selling point for these devices is that they have a color screen. For many of our customers, it will be the first color screen they’ve ever owned. They don’t have TVs and computers – this is a really big step up for them.

One other key point I should mention is the availability of local languages. Across the region – with the exception of Angola – the main language is Swahili. That’s available on Nokia phones, but not from many of our competitors. Basic literacy levels are pretty low in many places, so the likelihood of people knowing a foreign language to operate their phone is tiny. That local relevancy is a really key part of Nokia’s proposition.

NC: What’s the appeal of dual-SIM in the region?

KO: In each country, there are around four operators and each offers different rates, so call charges can sometimes be expensive. That’s one reason dual-SIM devices are in such demand: people can get more for their money by using different operators for different purposes.

But that’s not the only reason. Mobile phones here are not typically owned by just one person. They can be family phones. The Nokia 101 and Nokia 100 allow for multiple phonebooks and saved settings for up to five different SIM cards. That way, the phone becomes personal to each of those people, even though they have to share.

Dual-SIM has taken a while to arrive. But now the technology has matured and we’re ready to release phones that are reliable, don’t drain your battery too much and keep working. If we had released immature technology, that could have damaged our brand across the region.

NC: A lot of armchair commentators say Nokia should just concentrate on a few smartphones at the top end. Why do we produce these lower-end phones?

KO: It’s hard for people to understand the big picture. In Europe, you’re looking at 100 per cent mobile penetration and higher. But there are still billions of people with no mobile phone whatsoever. For people here, the foundations still need to be in place. If Nokia demonstrates a commitment here to local needs. If we provide a robust, reliable, relevant solution to real requirements. If we do that, then when they move up the chain to GPRS and then to 3G, it will be a Nokia that is their first choice. That’s why these phones are so important.

Thanks to Kenneth Oyolla, for his time and an enlightening chat. Any comments on phones for the next billion users?