South Africa has a long history of unknown mobile brands that start off catering for entry-level phone users, briefly threaten to challenge the big names, and then fizzle out like a fading signal from a derelict cellular mast.
Barely a year ago, for example, AG Mobile was the big story in local branding. It had sold millions of feature phones and low-cost smartphones, through mass-market retail chains like Jet and Pep. It was designed locally, manufactured in China, imported, and packaged for local tastes. It was a decade-long success story.
But then it overreached, produced a series of phones aimed at both low and middle-income segments, all the way up to mid-range smartphones. Not only that, but it flooded the market with handsets in the hope of replicating its success at the low end.
Overnight, the business collapsed as sales failed to keep up with the heady pace of imports. In a matter of days, the brand vanished from the shelves.
Meanwhile, a second South African brand had been replicating AG’s success at the entry level. The decade-old Mobicel catered for every budget, if that budget was below R500 to buy the phone outright. At the top end of the market, where that amount and more is spent every single month on contracts, Mobicel was completely unknown.
Soon, that may change. Mobicel is about to venture on the path treaded by AG Mobile when it ventured outside its comfort zone.
There is one fundamental difference, however, said founder and CEO Ridhwan Khan: not only are quantities being carefully managed, but Mobicel is not committing itself to manufacturing capacity that cannot be covered by existing resources, and it is hitting the market with what it calls premium phones, at reasonable prices.
The Mobicel R9 and R9 Plus, launched last week, are rare examples of devices that really can change the mobile game.
The R9 Plus is an Android phone that sports not only a 5.7-inch touch screen, but also edge-to-edge display. Samsung has pioneered the concept with its flagship phones for a number of years, with Apple following suit in its latest iPhones this year. Only LG, with its Q6 released a few months ago, had introduced edge-to-edge screens in a mid-market phone.
So is this a mid-market phone? Perhaps a new category is needed. In a sense, Mobicel is following the lead of Chinese brand Xiaomi, which markets its mid-range smartphones as “high value, affordable devices”. But, at a price of R2 999, the Mobicel R9 Plus probably represents the best value-for-money yet in terms of features versus cost.
The truly remarkable feature of the phone, which does not appear to have been adopted by any other major manufacturer, is that it has flipped the traditional approach of having a premium camera on the rear of the phone and a lower-quality lens on the front for selfies.
With the R9 Plus, the selfie takes pride of place, with a dual front camera. One lens comes in at 20 Megapixels and the other at 8 MP. Mobicel describes it as the “Super Selfie” dual lens camera. It also offers a 120 degree wide angle view, along with “Super Low Light capability”. And, like most mid- to –high-end phones, it sports a fingerprint sensor.
The slightly stripped down sibling of the Plus, the R9 Lite, will come to market at just under R2000. Both offer a 24-month warranty.
“We’ve created a handset with exceptional build quality, offering the latest technology, and the kind of features only ever before seen on handsets that cost four times as much,” said Kahn.
“We’ve used our experience, our understanding of the customer base and our economies of scale to offer them an opportunity to migrate from whatever device they’re using to our premium smartphone.”
Mobicel’s stratetic advantage is that it distributes through more than four thousand retail outlets, ranging from the smallest store to large discount chains. It will begin selling the new devices from the beginning of next month, both through retailers and online via Takealot.com.
“There is a big void between phones like the Vodafone Smart Kicka at R399, and the feature-rich smartphones from Samsung and Huawei,” Kahn said in an interview after the launch.
“No one’s filling that massive gap, almost indoctrinating consumers to the idea that if you really want a nice device you have to pay R6000 upward. There’s a massive opportunity. If we can play in the space between R1 500 and R3 000, we will start filling the void.
“Our biggest challenge is making the user experience an awesome one so that when people buy and use the device, whatever reservations they had about the price point is gone. We want people to experience the brand, so we are keeping margins very thin, and a big part of our margin is being put into building a local brand.”
This is uncharted territory for a businessman who entered the cellphone industry in 2002 by bringing in refurbished handsets from the United Kingdom. He would clean them up, and sell them as demo units. By 2007, demand had exceeded supply, and he realised there was a massive market waiting for him.
The first Mobicel handset, back in 2007, was the M404, a1.8-inch dual-SIM feature phone. That’s the year Apple launched the iPhone and sparked the smartphone revolution. It’s taken a decade for Mobicel to break out of the feature phone market, and now it wants to spark an equivalent revolution in the South African mass market.
Said Kahn, “The end game is to provide powerful smartphones without the hefty price tag.”
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.