Google is bringing cheap smartphones to Africa, but it has a problem: China got there first

Can Google crack it?
Can Google crack it?
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

With annual smartphone sales in Africa projected to go above 120 million by 2020, global firms are fighting to offer the cheapest handsets on the market. Currently, 20% of smartphones sold in Africa cost less than $100.

Enter Google, which this week introduced its Android One line of devices to Africa with the launch of the Infinix Hot 2 handset in Nigeria. The line is tailored specifically for emerging markets.

The phone boasts a number of features that should appeal to African consumers. It runs the latest Android operating system (Lollipop 5.1.1) and, unlike some Chinese competitors in Africa, can be upgraded to future versions of the OS.

It also features a streamlined version of Google search—important given the continent’s slow internet speeds. ”This feature can reduce data usage on the results page by up to 90%, while removing up to 1/3 of the time it takes to load results,” wrote Caesar Sengupta, Google’s VP of product management, in a blog post.

Google also announced—as it did in India, when it launched Android One there—that the YouTube app will soon be able to work offline. “This feature… lets you store many of the videos on YouTube for up to 48 hours,” Sengupta said. “So you can watch them later when your connection may be slow—or nonexistent.”

In Nigeria, the Infinix Hot 2 sells for about $90, primarily through the e-commerce platform Jumia, plus in some retail outlets. And it will soon be available in a handful of other African countries.

Can Android One take on Chinese alternatives?

The question for Google is whether Android One offerings will prove more attractive than the cheaper Chinese smartphones currently dominating the market in Africa. These generic handsets, despite running older and slower versions of the Android OS, are available for as little as $50 and reportedly claim two-thirds of the current smartphone market on the continent.

“One of the biggest things that a lot of people are failing to realize [about Africa] is the penetration of the gray market,” said Nathan Eagle, chief executive of Boston-based mobile-tech company Jana, to the International Business Times earlier this year.

Google is betting the Android One line will compel consumers to ditch the Chinese alternatives. But typically, African smartphone users tend to be brand agnostic and interested in cheap handsets that can offer them a route to the internet.

“The differentiator will be customer service,” said Taha Jiwaji, chief executive officer of Bongo Live, a Tanzania-based mobile and digital marketing company, to Quartz. “But on features, only the techies know that difference. My dad is not gonna know what Android One is. Price and [hardware] features are what people look at. Software features, your average consumer doesn’t get that at the moment. All they care about is, can I get on WhatsApp and share photos with my friends.”

Google faces other competitors in Africa. MTN, the leading telecom firm on the continent, sells its own cheap smartphones. In Nigeria it offers the MTN Smart S720i and Smart Mini S620, available via Jumia for about $57 and $47, respectively. In South Africa it sells the Steppa 2, which goes for about $62.

Android One has struggled in India, in part because of pricing. Google is hoping to lower the phone’s price there to $30 to $50, from about $100. To be competitive, it might have to do something similar in Africa.