If you’ve been on Zimbabwean social media in the past few years you have seen the jokes about itel. Snobby Zimbabweans love mocking itel smartphone users. Yes, the elites with $55 iPhone 5’s love telling us how much better than us they are. Unfortunately for them, most Zimbabweans and Africans at large do not care one bit about these pretentious self-professed upper middle class.
Tecno, Infinix and itel dominance
Itel and its sister brands Tecno and Infinix have taken over the continent and will not be relinquishing their lead anytime soon. What lead? You ask. Well, about one in every 2 phones sold on the African continent is a Tecno, Infinix or itel and the trends indicate even more dominance in the future..
In Q3 2021, these 3 sister brands accounted for 47.4% of the African smartphone market share. More than double what second placed Samsung managed to ship with 21.3% market share.
When it comes to the feature phone (mbudzi) market, the domination is even more pronounced. In Q2 2021, the 3 brands in question had 76.3% of the market share, with Nokia a distant second with 9.8%.
Millennials and older generations are old enough to remember Nokia commanding such market share. Oh, how giants fall. However, as the giant faltered, very few of us would have picked Tecno and its siblings to take over as king. So, how did that happen with Samsung, Apple, Huawei and other Chinese brands still competing on the continent.
Transsion Holdings is the Chinese company which owns the Tecno, Infinix and itel smartphone brands. Itel is the entry level brand, Tecno the mid to high end brand and Infinix their highest end brand.
Transsion also own the Oraimo brand, through which they produce accessories like power banks, data cables, chargers, smartwatches etc. I tested the Oraimo SoundGo bluetooth speaker and found it excellent for the price.
Then there is the home appliances division under the Syinix brand which produces everything from TVs and fridges to gas cookers and sandwich makers.
Transsion’s after-sales service brand is called Carlcare and assists customers of products from all the brands discussed above.
Transsion started their journey to African dominance way back in 2006 in Nigeria. They launched the first Tecno branded phone then and somehow ended up ruling the roost.
How Transsion conquered Africa
Transsion did not follow the same path that other Chinese manufacturers took. Instead of first catering to the huge Chinese market, Transsion decided to focus on Africa. In fact, it’s reported that they have never sold a single handset in China. Most Chinese people do not even know that Transsion exists despite being headquartered in the famous Shenzhen tech megacity.
This decision to focus on Africa turned out to be golden. Transsion, unlike other manufacturers like Nokia, Samsung and Huawei, could solve for the particular needs that Africans had. Rather than creating phones for the Western market or even India and then trying to sell them in Africa.
Founder Zhu Zhaojiang (George) first came to Africa as head of sales for a different mobile phone company, Ningbo Bird. Can’t say I had ever heard of Ningbo. Anyway, after a decade traveling around Africa it became acutely clear to him that the approach that phone manufacturers were taking to the African market was all wrong. Said he to Global Times,
In the past, firms that did business in Africa and South Asia did not spend too much on research and development (R&D), but in fact, emerging markets require more R&D effortsZhu Zhaojiang
Zhu is a fan of the glocalisation strategy where a company creates products that can be sold around the world but can be customised for specific markets. After over a decade trying to sell phones in Africa, Zhu had an idea of what people really needed.
Dual/multi sim support
These days you can get Tecnos with support for up to four sim cards and that’s testament to how Transsion understands Africa. Our first world friends don’t get why this is a big deal but as I consider the three sim cards in my name right now I’m glad Transsion pushed this feature to the mainstream.
When we started doing business in Africa, we noticed people had multiple SIM cards in their wallet.Zhu Zhaojiang
Africans don’t do this for kicks and giggles. Cross network calls are expensive and from time to time, the mobile network operators conjure up enticing promotions and and no one wants to miss out on any deal from any carrier. That’s not to mention how network coverage is sketchy here. It’s common to find Carrier A’s coverage better where you live and Carrier B better where you work.
You just have to have at least two options. A dual sim phone allows you to have those two sim cards without having to invest in two phones. Something most of us cannot afford.
I’m sure Nokia had noticed this too but saw no opportunity there. Although the first dual sim phone came out back in 2000, Tecno were trailblazers in bringing this feature to prominence in Africa. The first Tecno dual sim phone came a full two years before Nokia caught wind of what was happening.
Being Zimbabwean, where even most of our grandparents can read and write in English, we sometimes forget just how disadvantaged non-English speakers are in this world. Trying to imagine how smartphone penetration would be in Zimbabwe if phones came with Turkish as the default language gives me the chills.
Transsion started offering keyboards in a number of African languages. Ethiopian Ahmaric, Swahili and Hausa all brought in new customers.
Selfies for us darkies
If you followed the launch of the Pixel 6 in late 2021 you saw Google brag about how they figured out how to properly capture pictures of darker skinned people. No longer would we blend into backgrounds, but rather our black and brown faces would pop like never before.
That would have been impressive if Transsion had not been doing this for years before Google joined the party. We are vain too here in Africa and Transsion saw to it that our selfies were just as pleasing. Transsion’s AI powered imaging technology apparently helps people take pleasing photos even at night as testimonials on the internet suggest. Says Transsion general manager Wang,
We discovered ways to optimize photos, such as improving users’ eyes, nose, skin color, and quality, which helps our users take a clearer, more natural, and more beautiful photo…..
[the phones comprise custom lights and…]
…..an optimized photo effect to help users take bright and clear photos even in low-light conditions.Transsion
Millions of photos of dark-skinned people were analysed and colour temperature and exposure preferences of users noted and then used to tune the Transsion camera.
Focus on battery life
Last year we were all amused by the Tecno Pova 2 with a 7000mAh battery but these Transsions brands have been doing that for years. The Transsion team says they saw the frequent power cuts across the continent as an obstacle and so big batteries and battery life enhancing modifications were a priority.
The biggest challenge was of course making sure that after working on all of the above, the phones were still cheap. Average incomes in Africa do not allow for $1000 smartphones to sell in the millions. So, Transsion decided to focus on the low to lower midrange smartphone market.
The brilliance in their plan comes from understanding the market. There are must-have features in the West that most Africans would gladly trade away for a lower phone price.
- Weaker processors mean a slower smartphone but that’s better than a fast smartphone you can’t afford
- Mostly plastic builds mean cheap feeling phones but what does glass really offer when most of us stick our phones in cases anyway
- I’ve had phones with NFC for years but couldn’t tell you when I’ve actually used it for anything more than showing off. So, Transsion not bothering with it makes sense.
- Wireless charging for what reason? Plug that baby into the faster brick and get a cheaper phone in the process.
- IP certification gives users that peace of mind of knowing that should they drop their phone in a pothole, it would survive. Well, I’ve never dropped a phone in a pool in all my years on earth so Transsion is right in not worrying about IP certification. This is made even better by knowing that although they don’t go for official certification, Transsion works to make sure some of their phones are splashproof.
These and other cost cutting measures are responsible for 95% of all Transsion smartphones costing less than US$200.
Marketing and distribution
In Africa it’s not enough to convince carriers like Econet, NetOne and Telecel in Zimbabwe’s case, to sell your phone and think you’re home and dry. It’s not that easy as distribution models are different here.
Transsion goes onto the market and works with independent shop owners located in the hotspots of activity in African towns. They offer a small fee to brand the walls with their logos and local entrepreneurs couldn’t be happier. Walk through downtown Harare for example and see how many itel and Tecno banners you see, it’s quite a lot. Yet the brand presence is even higher in other African countries.
Most of these local entrepreneurs end up actually joining the program and start selling the phones in the end. So, you will find that it’s easier to find a Transsion smartphone than any other brand in Africa. This is translating into high sales and none of the competition has a similarly ingenius marketing and distribution model because it takes work that they are not willing to put in.
Is there any stopping Transsion?
Of course we thought the same about Nokia and even Blackberry at one point. Fact is, the phone business is fickle and we could wake up to Transsion down in the dumps. However, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.
Transsion went public and has a market capitalisation in the billions of dollars. They are utilising the funds raised to expand into other markets and now have a presence in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Latin America. With production taking place in Ethiopia, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India everything seems to have fallen in place for Transsion.
We shall see how this story progresses. In the meantime let’s be grateful that Transsion fast tracked smartphone penetration on this continent of ours by offering cheap and adequate phones for the masses.