Foe the past few days, the prevailing mood at Astro Mobile, a local mobile phone distribution and tech startup has been celebratory, and for good reason. The company recently won the Outstanding Mature Business Award at the 2015 Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship (AAE).
While it might seem like another accolade in a sea of honours dished out to African entrepreneurs, Astro has embraced it as a testament of the work it has been doing in building a Pan African technology brand that is set to do more than just sell mobile devices.
We caught up with Munya Gwatidzo, the founder and CEO of Astro Mobile and he believes that Astro has made a lot of effort over the past 3 years to establish itself firmly in the African devices market.
The most recent feat, which likely contributed to the award and continental recognition, was the securing of partnerships with Airtel and MTN.
These arrangements will give Astro an opportunity to sell its devices in every market where the two telecoms operators are present. The deal is similar to what another Zimbawean devices brand, GTeL, inked earlier this year in Kenya and East Africa.
Gwatidzo believes that Astro is ready to meet the challenges of such a huge market, having gotten a feel of African business already through the extension of the brand’s presence to neighbouring markets like Zambia.
Revised market focus
However, there’s more to Astro’s growth than just distribution partnerships with mobile operators. The company is carrying out a complete product overhaul in the next few weeks, which will be marked by the introduction of two ranges of devices, Bullet and Push.
Bullet will cater for the entry level segment, with lower priced devices that offer a basic smartphone experience. The Push range will provide more premium experience, with devices that offer high-end mobile phone functionality.
These changes are meant to refine Astro’s focus on market segments that it believes it can better serve by offering the best possible experience on reasonably priced devices. Rather than catering for the entire spectrum of mobile device consumers with every sort of device, it will try to find a fit between consumer buying power and device quality realities.
It’s supposed to solidify Astro in its spot as an aspirational brand with caters for African middle class buyers that are keen on high end smartphone functionality, but need a more affordable alternative to high priced brand giants like Apple, HTC and Samsung.
At the same time, its Bullet range is meant to sell the first smartphone experience to consumers that haven’t developed an appetite or the disposable income for more premium devices.
Gwatidzo belives this places Astro in competition with Huawei, which has consistently occupied the segments that Astro is now hammering on with this new product range.
Gwatidzo maintains that these brands aren’t their main competition for reasons based on their product range, distribution and pricing. He believes that both brands will have a bit of a challenge identifying their sweet spots in the repective markets they are targeting.
Tecno has to sell itself as the new and better “affordable” brand in Zimbabwe going up against brands like Astro and GTeL that have made a strong mark there. Xiaomi, which has benefited from Chinese market headwinds and an online model won’t experience the same advantages in Africa.
What lies beyond the phone for Astro?
Astro wants to become more than just a mobile devices company. While it keeps its eye on the distribution of tablets, phones and smart watches, it has been taking steps towards being more of a tech services and appliances outfit.
In its aspirational matrix, it will extend its hardware distribution to appliances like televisions which it has already secured a plant for. There are also plans for other products like refrigerators, though that is meant to be in the long term.
However, the interesting bit mentioned by Gwatidzo lies with the creation of an Astro platform. This is meant to accomodate all its other ambitious plays at an ecosystem that we’ve seen in the past.
There is also a play on enterpise services extension that Astro is exploring, though details for that haven;t beren fully disclosed.
All these plans are clearly selling Astro as the aspirational brand in every sense of the term, something that might lend a lot of skeptics to question whether Gwatidzo and his team will be able to pull all of this off.
Like the rest of his team, he’s maintaining a positive outlook, taking pride in being able to keep a startup with 100 employees viable in a very tough environment.