Mobiles earn out of Africa

Some surprising players are rushing to take advantage of this largely untapped market for communications

Africa is the world's biggest emerging market but also its most dangerous, as the uprising in Mali and the hostage-taking in Algeria have underlined in recent days. Despite these risks, foreign companies are rushing to take advantage of the boom, which is being driven by cheap mobile communications.

This largely untapped market is seeing some surprising players emerge – notably the Chinese, who have already been keen to buy up natural resources across the continent.

Apple and Samsung may dominate the premium smartphone market in developed markets but they have been less eager to enter Africa. Instead, Finland's Nokia, once the number one player around the world, is still the biggest supplier of basic devices, called "feature phones", on the continent, with around 50 per cent share. The Chinese – in the form of manufacturers ZTE and Huawei – have emerged as the next biggest, according to industry estimates.

The latest significant move has come from China's biggest internet search engine, Baidu, which this week signed a deal with France Telecom's Orange network, the third-biggest mobile operator in Africa, to appear on the homescreen of all its phones. It is thought to be the biggest such move Baidu has made in mobile outside its native country as it eyes the global search market, which is dominated by Google.

The opportunities in Africa are changing fast.

The African mobile market is forecast to grow at 6.3 per cent a year to $100bn (£63bn) in 2015 – faster than any other region, according to the research firm Idate.

Marc Rennard, executive vice-president of Orange's operations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, says demand for Android smartphones in Egypt doubled in the last six months of 2012. Orange has already told investors it wants to double revenues in Africa to €7bn (£6bn) in 2015 from €3.4bn in 2009 through a combination of organic growth and expansion into new countries.

Libya, Ethiopa and Algeria, all of which have been hit by war and strife, are high on Orange's wish-list of markets that it would like enter.

So it is clear that Africa is not a region for the faint-hearted, even though Mr Rennard stresses that there are big variations across the continent's 54 countries.

"Except in Mauritius and Botswana, I never know what will happen the next day," he says, speaking on a visit to London to launch the joint venture with Baidu.

He has to deal with "crises on my plate every day". But Orange has continued to see steady growth despite these challenges – even in 2011, which he describes as "the annus horribilis", because of the disruption caused by events such as the Arab Spring in North Africa.

"This business is very sustainable," he says. "The growth is still there even when you have big crises."

Africa is very different from Western markets because many areas have had little or no phone coverage, including land lines. There are swaths of the population whose first-ever phone is a mobile.

Basic feature phones, costing as little as £8, dominate, while smartphone penetration is only 6 per cent.

The bulk of users are on pay-as-you-go tariffs and revenues from voice calls and SMS text messages are still rising, unlike in Europe where regulators have pushed down on prices.

But the growth is slowing – hence the need to embrace the mobile internet and partnerships such as the Orange-Baidu tie-up.

The challenge is to persuade more people to upgrade to a more expensive low-end smartphone, which might cost $50.

"3G is in 15 countries," says Mr Rennard, referring to the advent of super-fast, third-generation mobile networks capable of carrying internet and data traffic.

"It was not the case three years ago. It's a big change."

In addition, Orange has a big under-sea network of submarine cables, running off the west coast of Africa, to help carry the mobile load over long distances.

The importance of 3G isn't just economic but political and cultural – witness the impact of social media and texting during the Arab Spring of 2010-11.

While smartphones are taking off, Mr Rennard believes tablet computers will not be as popular in the short term.

It's less of a cost issue and more about energy consumption – it's easier to recharge a smartphone with solar power, he explains, rather than, say, a laptop or tablet.

Similarly, the Baidu browser on the Orange phone, which features search, video service Daily Motion and games, is designed to conserve battery life. There is an option to look at the web in "text-only" mode to avoid downloading lots of large images.

Analysts believe mobile commerce, dubbed m-commerce, is also well suited to the African market where significant numbers of people have never had a bank account. Instead it's easy to load up a phone with credit. Mr Rennard cites Ivory Coast where Orange saw 550 mobile payment transactions an hour on the final day of last year.

Internet-enabled TV, via 3G, is another interesting development. Orange has launched TV set-top boxes with a mobile connection in Jordan.

One tricky issue facing all operators is their relationship with national governments.

Vodafone and Orange were among the carriers which were controversially asked by the government of Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak to send messages to citizens in the regime's dying days, as it clung to power.

"Everywhere in the world, in the UK, in France and in Africa, you work under public licence," acknowledges Mr Rennard.

"For security reasons you may be asked by the government to use your network for very precise reasons. We try to manage it carefully.

"If a soldier comes in [to your base station] and says you have 20 minutes to turn off the SMS, at the end of the day you stop the SMS."

During the Egyptian revolution, Orange was twice asked to send messages by the Army, he says, but the carrier made clear at the end of each message that it had been sent by the government, not Orange.

"One of our competitors has been criticised because they didn't do this," Mr Rennard says pointedly, referring to Vodafone.

For once, it's no exaggeration to describe Africa's mobile transformation as a revolution.