SA company to start making smartphones

Seemahale's smartphone will look like a Samsung Galaxy S4. (AFP, Jung Yeon-Je)

Seemahale's smartphone will look like a Samsung Galaxy S4. (AFP, Jung Yeon-Je)

Millions of mobile phones are shipped to Africa every month, but a South African company hopes to rival the likes of Samsung and Nokia with home-grown smartphones tailored to African needs.

Local telecommunications equipment manufacturer Seemahale Telecoms is building a model that looks similar to Samsung's Galaxy S4 and runs on Google's Android operating system. The smartphone will retail at around R2 500.

"It just didn't seem right that there are hundreds of millions of phones in Africa, none of which are actually manufactured here," says Seemahale founder Thabo Lehlokoe.

"Not because of anything other than the fact that everybody tended to think that it is cheaper to do these things in China."

If it seems implausible that an African company with no experience of building phones could compete seriously with established global manufacturers, Seemahale counters that his as yet unnamed phone will fill an unmet need.

A natural big-brand comparison might be the Sony Xperia Go, which has a similarly rated processor and retails for R2 899.

But whereas the Go has a 3.5-inch touchscreen and advertised talk time of up to 6.5 hours, Seemahale's phone will have a 5-inch touchscreen and Lehlokoe says its 2 250mAh battery will offer talk time of "over a day".

Features for Africa
Those features are must-haves on a continent where a relative lack of home computers or fixed-line telephones means most people interact with the internet from their phones, says Lehlokoe. And many find it difficult to charge their devices regularly.

"Longevity of the battery is very important, given our target market.
It's not people who have access to power all the time," Lehlokoe said.

Africa already has at least 600-million cellphones. But the billion-strong population is growing rapidly, as are incomes, and governments are promoting connectivity in the hope that it will speed up delivery of education and health services.

Seemahale has yet to receive pre-orders – the devices are still undergoing regulatory tests – but Lehlokoe said one South African operator is already testing the phone and another is interested. The phones are designed to be rebranded by operators, with their own logos.

The components are from Taiwan and China, but the phones will come part-assembled for the first few months until factory workers are more familiar with the production process.

Seemahale will eventually have the capacity to produce 150 000 smartphones or the 10.1-inch tablets it intends to produce, retailing for R3 500, a month, says Lehlokoe. But even an output of 5 000 devices a month could mean 50 to 100 new jobs.

Being prepared to take small orders might give Seemahale an edge in selling to smaller firms that lack the purchasing power of the big mobile operators to secure discounts from the bigger manufacturers.

Market share
Lehlokoe hopes a South African government policy that rewards companies for buying from black-owned firms will work in his favour. And he hopes to find partner firms soon to distribute his phones elsewhere in Africa.

Research by telecoms advisory firm IDC shows that Africa received shipments of almost 30-million phones in the second quarter of 2013, a fifth of which fell into the smartphone segment.

Young African buyers are as brand-conscious as consumers anywhere else in the world, but analysts say companies such as Seemahale can still hope for a small bite of the pie if they price devices attractively.

"It has to be comparable to the mainstream devices," says IDC analyst Spiwe Chireka. "Many will be saying: 'Even if I don't get an S4, if I have a phone that looks like an S4, I'm still cool, it's still acceptable'."

There are other companies hoping consumers will embrace handsets made or designed in Africa.

Mauritius-based Mi-Fone is selling basic phones for as little as $12 in countries such as Kenya, Angola, Rwanda and Nigeria. Republic of Congo firm VMK is designing smartphones and tablets for Africa, which are assembled in China.

Despite low wages and high unemployment, African countries have struggled to build manufacturing centres because of a lack of infrastructure and excess red tape. Even South Africa, the continent's most developed economy, grapples with low levels of productivity and frequent labour strife.

Lehlokoe hopes his smartphones might help change that. "We want Africans to be proud that they can do this themselves," he said. "And not just be consumers of everyone else's solutions." – Reuters

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