Agbaje Olushola stares longingly at the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Tecno N7 smartphones on display in the Banex Plaza technology market in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.
The 32-year-old engineer already owns three handsets, yet said he is prepared to pay 100,000 naira ($632) to 150,000 naira for a smartphone to add to his collection.
“I’m a phone freak,” said Olushola, clutching a BlackBerry in his left hand while a black Nokia Oyj (NOK1V) N73 peeps out of his jeans pocket. “If you don’t have those smartphones you look less trendy in society.”
Soon Olushola, whose second Nokia -- an N900 -- is charging in his car, will be spoiled for choice as Microsoft Inc. (MSFT:US) and China’s Lenovo Group Ltd. (992) try to grab a slice of a market already occupied by BlackBerry, Samsung Electronics Co. (005930) and Tecno Telecom. Both will introduce devices to a country where the number of smartphone users is expected to increase to more than 35 million in 2017 from 5.6 million at the end of last year, according to research by Informa Telecoms & Media.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with more than 160 million people, is projected to grow its economy by 7.2 percent this year, above the 5.6 percent average for sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Monetary Fund. Mobile phone companies see it as a particularly attractive market because many Nigerians own more than one device, allowing them to take advantage of cheap tariff deals and overcome patchy network coverage.
MTN Group Ltd. (MTN), the largest mobile phone operator in Nigeria with 51.3 million subscribers at the end of March, increased revenue from data services in the country by about 64 percent in the first quarter partly because of increased use of smartphones, according to Brett Goschen, chief executive officer of the company’s Nigerian unit.
“The biggest driver is the devices, particularly the smartphones,” which appeal to those who need to access the Internet at work, Goschen said in an interview in Lagos, the commercial capital. “Once he can do that and use applications on smartphones that really drives the data usage, that’s really where the increase is coming from.”
MTN has 195 million subscribers across more than 20 countries including Nigeria. The company’s shares fell today after Bloomberg News reported that it is exploring a potential acquisition in India, according to four people familiar with the matter. The stock declined 0.9 percent to 180.38 rand by 2:26 p.m. in Johannesburg, valuing the company at 340.65 billion rand.
Chike Maduegbuna was among the first to see the growth in Nigeria’s smartphone market when his company FansConnectOnline Ltd. created Afrinolly, an application that allows users to view trailers and read news about the country’s film industry, known as Nollywood.
Afrinolly has been downloaded more than 2.3 million times since it was introduced last year, about 90 percent onto smartphones, Maduegbuna said in an interview. The app is preloaded on some MTN devices and Maduegbuna hopes to strike a similar deal with Lenovo.
“The smartphone culture is growing across Nigeria and other African nations,” Maduegbuna said. “People are becoming conscious of what they can do with smartphones and they’re getting cheaper.”
Both Lenovo, the world’s second-biggest maker of personal computers, and Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft have recognized that price is crucial to expanding in Africa, particularly in Nigeria where 63 percent of the population in 2010 were considered poor, according to the World Bank.
Lenovo will introduce its handsets across as many as six price bands and some could retail at about $500, Oliver Ebel, vice president and general manager of Lenovo Middle East and Africa, said in an interview in Johannesburg. Microsoft may discuss with local telecommunication companies and the Nigerian government about how to make smartphones more affordable, according to Gustavo Fuchs, who runs Microsoft’s Windows Phone business in Africa and Middle East.
“You see a lot of people that could afford a smartphone in Nigeria with a feature phone,” Fuchs said in an interview in Johannesburg, referring to cheaper, less sophisticated handsets. More attractive pricing, coverage and data connections would probably help boost smartphone usage, he said.
Nokia remains the handset of choice in Nigeria’s mobile phone market with a market share of about 73 percent over the year through April, followed by Suwon, South Korea-based Samsung with 4 percent, according to statistics by analytics firm StatCounter. Smartphones account for about 10 percent of the country’s handset market, according to Fuchs.
That’s good news for Sabastien Joseph’s business selling Nokia handsets from the boot of his car at the edge of Abuja’s Banex Plaza. The 23-year-old, who owns both a BlackBerry and Nokia phone, makes as much as 50,000 naira a day.
“We do sell plenty very well,” he said. “People like Samsung technology, but mainly because of the pinging technology most people go for BlackBerry,” he said, referring to the device’s messaging service.
One advantage for Nokia in Nigeria is its perceived strength in battery life, making its phones attractive for residents of a country where blackouts are a daily occurrence and demand for electricity is nearly double the supply of about 4,000 megawatts.
Lenovo is trying to overcome this problem by introducing smartphones with a longer battery life, possibly with the capability to charge from other phones via a USB connection, Lenovo’s Ebel said. Until that day arrives Agbaje Olushola must continue to rely on one of his two Nokia phones because he trusts their durability and battery life.
“In Nigeria we have electricity problems and you can always rely on your Nokia phone for the battery,” Olushola said. “You can charge it and maybe for the next three days it will still be on, compared to the BlackBerry you have to charge every 10 hours or thereabouts.”
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