KaiOS smart feature phones are not selling in huge numbers yet in Africa; here’s why

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If KaiOS smart feature phones are to replicate their Indian success in African countries and elsewhere, they need mobile network operators to make them more attractive to subscribers, the way that reliance Jio did in India.

A smart feature phone is one in which a smart operating system runs in the traditional feature phone form factor – a small screen and alphanumeric keypads. It has Internet connectivity, an app store, and lightweight, data-friendly mobile apps so users can stay connected at low cost and on slower Internet connections.

KaiOS is a smart operating system that has taken India by storm and is now the 2nd largest mobile operating system in that country after Android OS, pushing iOS to 3rd place as Apple continues to struggle in the country.

But after you have sifted through all the excitement, the numbers, and the prospects of smart feature phones through a mobile operating system like KaiOS, you will eventually arrive at the conclusion that much of its success in India (where it has most of its market share) is due to the work of mobile operator, Reliance Jio.

TECNO t901 KaiOS smart feature phone
TECNO T901 is a KaiOS smart feature phone

Thanks to Reliance Jio in India, KaiOS is currently the 3rd largest mobile operating system in the world. And if the platform wants to sell lots of KaiOS smart feature phones and replicate that success elsewhere, it must find a Reliance Jio in every market it has its eyes on. Whether those are countries in Africa or in South America. It really is that simple. Let’s have a look at some KaiOS smart feature phones selling in markets outside of India.

Nokia 8110 4G vs the competition

using Nokia 8110 4G as a mobile WiFi hotspot

It does not help that the first KaiOS phone we have seen on sale in the market in Nigeria, for example, costs more than an entry-level smartphone. That is the Nokia 8110 4G. At ₦25,000 or $70, most mobile users in the country cannot afford it, and many who can afford it will buy an entry-level Android phone instead.

I bought one to satisfy my curiosity about the OS, but then that is me doing my job (see my Nokia 8110 4G review). I do not know many people in Nigeria who will buy one. For the price of the Nokia 8110 4G, you can buy a Redmi Go, an itel P32, or any of the dirt cheap Android phones in the market.

TECNO Mobile recently joined the league of brands that makes KaiOS smart feature phones when it announced the T901, a 4G LTE device.

Kai Technologies has also partnered with MTN and Orange to push dirt cheap KaiOS smart feature phones in their markets. While it is operator partnerships that will help the course of the platform, neither MTN nor Orange are replicating the game plan that made KaiOS smart feature phones hot cake in India .

MTN’s $25 smart feature phone

The MTN Smart T M561M3 is MTN’s $25 smart feature phone. Also known as Smart S in South Africa.

The MTN Smart T phone sells for ₦8,000 in Nigeria. And it isn’t a 4G phone. All you get is 3G. And there are no special data offers to make it juicy for buyers who often cannot afford the average data plan available here. Everything in this picture goes contrary to how Reliance Jio massaged the warmth of love for KaiOS into the hearts of millions of people.

In Nigeria, though, MTN gives Smart users free 500 MB data monthly for 6 months. That is it. It must be noted that using 500 MB on a KaiOS phone is a lot of data compared to say using the same data on an Android phone or iPhone, both of which are data guzzlers. KaiOS is a more data efficient operating system. Still, 500MB free data for 6 months will not do. Once the freebie is over, MTN Smart users then have to go back to regular data plans.

Orange Sanza

Orange Sanza smart feature phone with KaiOS

Orange proudly proclaimed Sanza, their version of the KaiOS phone that MTN launched as Smart, as “the phone which democratizes access to Internet in Africa”. Orange is pushing Sanza in 16 African and Middle-Eastern countries where it operates. But rhetoric is easy. Is Orange putting in the work that Reliance is?

Sanza sells for about $20, which is not a bad price for a phone with its functionality. I do not have access to details of any special data plans that Orange may have crafted specifically for it.

What Reliance did gave KaiOS smart feature phones a BIG boost in India

Jio Phone with KaiOS
Photo source: Reuters

To be honest, I doubt that the millions of Indians who use a Jiophone know what KaiOS is. They likely don’t. But they  love their Jiophone because it is the next best thing to Agege bread and Ewa agoyin.

What’s not to love about a phone that costs next to nothing but gives you access to superfast 4G and lets you access WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and download media also at ridiculously low prices? That’s what Reliance Jio offers Jiophone users, and that is exactly what MTN, Orange, and any other operator that wants to partner with Kai Technologies have to do.

Here are the key elements of the business model that made KaiOS smart feature phones hot cake in India:

  • affordable device costs;
  • special, low data costs.

Reliance offers dirt cheap data plans for Jiophone users. That’s the way to replicate the success of KaiOS smart feature phones in India anywhere else. That’s the game plan.

kaios smart feature phones

The correlation between M-Pesa and KaiOS smart feature phones

I remember how everyone hailed mobile money in Kenya as implemented by Safaricom. There was a lot of noise about replicating the success of M-Pesa  in other countries, but the conditions that made M-Pesa’s success possible in Kenya were never met in those other countries. And so, Kenya has remained a special case in mobile money.

Unless Kai Technologies is able to forge similar partnerships to what they have with Reliance Jio, India just might remain an isolated case of success for KaiOS smart feature phones. According to StatCounter, as at August 2019, KaiOS had a 0.59% share of the global mobile market, taking 3rd place behind Android OS and iOS.

As at December 2018, it had 1.12%. If KaiOS smart feature phones are to sell in huge numbers outside of India and grow the platform’s share of the global mobile phone market into a much bigger slice, It needs more mobile network partnerships beyond what we are seeing in Nigeria and other countries. Which network operators will rise to the occasion?

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