African governments turn to low-cost smartphone production to drive access

Kenya, Zambia, and other African nations are establishing smartphone manufacturing facilities to improve affordability.

African governments turn to low-cost smartphone production to drive access
President William Ruto at Kenya's local smartphone assembly plant

In 2018, a GSMA study pinpointed the unaffordability of smartphones as one of the primary obstacles preventing individuals living in internet-covered areas from accessing mobile internet services in Africa.

Smartphones cost about 62.8% of the monthly income of most Africans, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet. "Africa's persistent digital divide can be explained by socioeconomic factors, with affordability of devices and data being key inhibitors," according to Jane Munga, an African fellow at Carnegie tech policy programme.

In recent times, the advent of Buy Now, Pay Later platforms like Techstars-backed Keza Africa has enabled people to purchase smartphones and other gadgets via a deferred payment plan. Concurrently, a novel trend is surfacing, African governments are establishing local factories for the production and assembly of low-cost smartphones to better serve their citizens.

"Building the gadgets in the country will enable us to reduce the cost of smartphones in the country and hence foster inclusivity when it comes to connectivity," said Felix Mutati, Zambian minister of technology and science, while announcing the country's plan to launch a smartphone factory by June 2024.

Just a few days before this announcement, Kenya unveiled a factory for smartphone assembly at a price point of $50, the result of a collaborative effort between Safaricom, Faiba, and their assembly partner, East Africa Device Assembly Kenya Limited (EADAK).

According to Joshua Chepkwony, the chairman of EADAK, "[It] will support the government’s agenda to enhance digital inclusion in the country. We have been able to achieve affordability through a collaborative approach that comprises industry partnerships and favourable government policies."

Recall that in the preceding year, Kenya's President, William Ruto, shared that his administration was in collaboration with telecommunications companies within the country to create what he termed "the cheapest smartphone in Africa". The launch of the Neon Smarta and Neon Ultra is a result of this collaboration.

Neon Smarta and Neon Ultra on display

In 2019, the Rwandan government initiated the Connect Rwanda Challenge, aimed at supplying one million smartphones to disadvantaged households in the nation. More recently, Airtel Africa unveiled a partnership with Rwanda to support the country's smartphone penetration objectives, offering 4G smartphones priced at $16.50, with a deferred payment plan of $0.80 per month.

"Rwandans are already using smartphones, but we want to enable many more," says Paul Kagame, the country's president.

Previously, Rwanda has partnered with telcos like MTN for a similar purpose which has seen the distribution of smartphones, including locally manufactured devices by Mara Group, arguably the pioneers of made-in-Africa devices.

Aside from Rwanda and Kenya, other African countries that have launched or accessed low-cost smartphone initiatives include South Africa, Senegal, and Cote d'Ivoire. However, this new trend is likely going to spread across the continent.

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