Africa’s feature phones are all but forgotten

Africa’s feature phone users number in the millions but are largely forgotten when start-ups start to target mobile Internet users.

A piece of market research carried out by Balancing Act gives some insight into what they do with their phones and what they want. Russell Southwood looks at what emerges from the research and the uncertain future of the feature phone.

In 2013 Balancing Act carried out a detailed market research study in seven Sub-Saharan countries in the vanguard of adopting the Internet and social media.

The study has four parts – which are available for free as downloads – and looks at how the Internet and social media are changing Africa’s communications and media landscape. Go to the right hand column of our website and download by clicking on the cover of the report you want.

One component of this research study was a survey of feature phone users (between the ages of 18-35) in the following countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. The research for these surveys was carried out by On Device Research.

Africa’s feature phone users have been the forgotten category. African start-ups nearly always want to design glossy apps for smartphones. Mobile operators increasingly want users to have smartphones: indeed, Safaricom has stopped selling feature phones.

Nevertheless, they remain the most used device for Africa’s growing mobile Internet user base. Take the example of Mali, where I was last week: one operator has 15% of its subscriber base able to access the Internet but only 400,000 have smartphones.

Feature phone users are significantly more likely to use the Internet almost as much radio and TV for news and information. This is not an either/or set of choices but the Internet is part of the range of media they use: in other words, they are checking for news on their phone throughout the day.

Internet is in second position in Nigeria, third position in Ethiopia and Kenya; fourth position in Ghana and fifth position in South Africa. This is behind TV, radio and sometimes friends and family. Social media was used by around two-thirds of respondents or slightly less in all countries except Ethiopia. A quarter to a third of all respondents obtained information using the Internet from NGOs.

Ownership of computers is not the sole metric to watch for this group of users. A third or more of feature phone users shared access to a laptop or desktop computer. They are a young, tech savvy group of users who simply do not have the money to be able to do all they want.

The top 3 things respondents said they were most likely to buy, upgrade to or hire in next 12 months were: a better phone (a smartphone on the basis of functionalities they indicated they wanted), a laptop and a better Internet connection.

Tablets were particularly attractive to respondents in Ghana and South Africa: US$100 Android tablets are now increasingly aavaulable. However, for this category of young users, it may be a few years before what they want comes into alignment with what they actually earn.

Two thirds to three-quarters of respondents across all countries used social media regularly to get news; information for work and information for the home. On the basis of use more than once a day, Facebook dominates social media use.

The exceptions are Google+ in Ghana (38%), Google+ in Kenya (39%), 2Go (49%) and Google + (43%) in Nigeria and Google+ (54%) and MXit (33%) in South Africa.

The key question for anybody whose living depends on what African mobile Internet users do must be: how long will feature phones last in the market? As smartphone prices edge down towards US$50 for generic Chinese brands and Mozilla is producing handsets at below that mark, long-term the writing must be on the wall for feature phones.

One sign of the way things are moving is that the feature phone social media and content platform biNU (See interview with Elizabeth Hensick Wood, Worldreader at the end of this article) is extending its reach to the Android platform.

But in Africa, old phones never truly die but are simply recycled to sons and daughters, relatives, house-helps and drivers. On that basis, the feature phones’ swan-song will be a long, drawn-out affair. If this is the case then it is likely to continue to be the device most used by mobile Internet users in Africa for at least the next 2-3 years and maybe longer.

By Balancing Act

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Africa’s feature phones are all but forgotten