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With millions of smartphones in South Africa, where are all the apps?

There are millions (and millions) of smartphones in South Africa. And growth is accelerating.

Vodacom’s latest financial results disclose some interesting numbers:

  • Between April and June, it added 406 000 smartphones
  • 70 percent of smartphones sold in the quarter were BlackBerry
  • As of 30 June, there are 3.7-million active smartphones on its network
  • 33 percent of its smartphone subscribers use data bundles

MTN, the second-largest network in the country, has 2.6-million smartphones on its network at the end of June. And Cell C, latecomer to the BlackBerry party, has over 100 000 BlackBerry customers.

That’s a total of 6.5-million (adding in 8ta and other smartphones on Cell C’s network). And remember, these numbers are all dated. We’re already at the end of September!

In the absence of any official figures, and based on some conversations with senior executives in the industry, here are a few (very) educated guesstimates for this market as of September 2011:

  • There are over 2 million BlackBerrys
  • About 2-million Android devices
  • A good many devices running Samsung’s Bada OS and
  • Around 250 000 iPhones in South Africa.

Nokia too is still a massive contender with its N-series and E-series devices, popular among business users. It still has a big installed base (well over a million).

So, 6.5-million smartphones. By the end of this month, that number will be around 8 million. In September last year there were fewer than half of that.

Let me repeat that: The number of smartphones in South Africa has more than doubled over the past 12 months.

Yes, the first thing we do on our new smartphones is install Facebook, Twitter, a few news apps, maybe a game or three…

But where are the great local South African apps?

Nokia has been the leader in sourcing, highlighting and growing local content for its Ovi (now called Nokia) Store. Sure, some of the drivers of the other platforms in this market are starting to commission local content, but there’s just not enough innovation happening.

Corporates are hiring agencies and development houses to build apps, but this is largely a box that the marketing department wants to tick, rather than something that offers a solution or attraction to customers.

Vodacom has launched an app store (piggybacking on what parent Vodafone offers in other global markets) and MTN is building an ambitious app store for its markets across Africa and the Middle East. But, despite what they might think, operator-run app stores are not the logical place to find apps.

Where are the slick, innovative, really great apps for the iTunes App Store, for the Android Market, for BlackBerry App World (and the soon-to-be-very-relevant Windows Marketplace)?

The new SuperSport App for the iPad is a step in the right direction. So too FNB’s Banking App available for iOS, Android and BlackBerry devices.

Let’s stop with the rehashed, stripped-down webpages that barely pass as an app.

Don’t tell me the market is too small.

If you cannot build a business (or a business case if you’re in a corporate) with a potential customer base of 8-million, then you shouldn’t be in business. That number will be 10-million by the time your app reaches the market.

And I haven’t even mentioned tablets.

Author | Hilton Tarrant: Columnist

Hilton Tarrant: Columnist
Hilton Tarrant is production editor at Moneyweb. His main focus is project management for the listed company’s local and international websites, and contributes to their strategic direction. From time-to-time, he also fills in for Alec Hogg on the SAfm Market Update with Moneyweb radio programme. In between, he covers... More


  1. Unboxed Consulting

    September 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Interesting how the number
    of smart phones is expected to grow. SA needs to embrace digital to a greater
    extent – we not only lack creative apps but also dynamic e-commerce websites.
    According to the World Wide Worx Mobility Report 2011 only 0.36% of retail
    sales in SA were online and the quality and functionality of many websites are
    letting down their brands. In the same report, about 9.5mi people are accessing
    the internet via mobile, which is almost double those on desktop.  Brands should really understand how the
    touch points with their target audiences are evolving and ensure that digital
    is an integral part of their marketing strategy.

  2. Pedant

    September 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Your phrase “educated guesstimates” is a good example of tautology. See also http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_a_estimate

  3. Hilton Tarrant

    September 23, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks! I actually used it deliberately to make sure readers didn’t think I’d just guessed these numbers out of thin air…

  4. Appfan

    September 23, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    There are some great apps for iPhone and iPad coming out of local App development companies like afrozaar and Touchlab. Obviously not researching something properly will bring limited results – but the apps on the shelf their have huge potential – and from the sounds of things their future lineup of apps is formidable. I think that the domestic market will be just fine. What we really need is a more cohesive local app store so that we can find the local apps more easily…

  5. Dean

    September 24, 2011 at 6:36 am


  6. Zappyza111

    September 25, 2011 at 10:32 am

    As a South African, our major hurdles to widespread app use is the cost of our mobile internet, which is quite high. The only saving grace here is the blackberry platform which has a fixed cost per month and via BIS allows for unlimited email and on-device browsing. Iphone’s and IPAD’s, as well as Android based devices will not achieve critical mass until the costs of data come down. We have one of the best 3G, HSDPA networks in Africa and are being choked to death on costs! An SMS in South Africa costs over 80c ($0.10)! And a 10MB of mobile data costs R9 ($1.00)!
    Come on international vendors, bring us affordable  mobile broadband!

  7. Steven

    September 26, 2011 at 10:31 am

    We are a South African company that develop apps for smartphones. Already released Golf Weather for iphone. http://www.fontera.com

  8. Pingback: We are on the verge of an eCommerce revolution | memeburn

  9. Pingback: Those 8-million smartphones are just the beginning | memeburn

  10. Mark

    September 30, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    The challenge with launching games for the various app stores
    and targeting South Africans is that apparently all games need to be certified
    by the film and publications board – with that in place you’re not likely to
    see many developers targeting South African smartphone users, as there’s just to much red tape and costs involved.

  11. Hans

    September 30, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    One would assume you could build a good business case out of 8 million smartphone users. However take into account the cost of development together with the cost of acquisition.  At an acquired conversion rate of 0,10% with an assumed (agressive) adoption rate of 0,05%… that gives you a grand total of 40000 customers…. a risky business to say the least.

  12. Tholithemba B Ntsele

    October 4, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Good Question Mate.

  13. Pingback: MTN | LS Marketing Services

  14. Pingback: Mobiles in Africa – some stats | @Czernie

  15. MeabhMedia

    November 30, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Well, here’s a new South African app for South Africans! 

    It’s called Rainbow Languages and is android only for now, 
    but blackberry, iphone and nokia coming in the next few weeks… 


    Rainbow Languages Guide helps you communicate in South Africa’s main languages! 
     It has everyday words and greetings in the top 8 most spoken official South African languages: Afrikaans, English, North Sotho, Sotho, Swati, Tswana, Tsonga and Zulu. The aim is to bring together all the different people of south africa, and it’s many visitors and help them learn a little more about each other (and be able to say Hi!). This list of words is unique as each word is listed in the multiple languages for instant comparison and learning across all the languages. 

    This is the first of many South-African specific apps that we are launching soon.

  16. Pingback: South African mobile usage trends to improve in 2012… with provisos « InMarketingSpeak

  17. Zappie

    February 1, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Check out CardZapp currently on the iStore, BB to be launched in SA soon

  18. Jeanne Smith

    February 4, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    The mobile market is booming – there is some great information at Our Mobile Planet generated by Google – like the fact that 35% of South Africans said that they prefer to use the Internet on their smartphone because it’s cheaper than on their desktop or other device.

    The main reason for the limited number of apps in the South African market is that the cost has been so prohibitive, but that is changing quickly! 

    We are a small app development company starting up in South Africa building cost effective apps for small to medium sized businesses.  We are also launching Directory Apps for Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban so that small businesses can take advantage of mobile marketing without the costs of having a customized app built and hosted.   

    Jeanne Smith

  19. watcheroftheskies

    July 3, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    Horace, I totally agree. way too many flame-wars going on. Just think of Windows vs Linux as the Catholic vs Protestant; a lot of disputes and sectarism in the latter, but at least trying to think for themselves.
    But if youŕe looking for some stability KDE might be an option for you; maybe give OpenSuse (KDE version) a try. Really, the fun and trouble of Linux…so much choice! :)

  20. azvicrider

    July 5, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    Well the easiest way to test Linux on your hardware is to run it on a live CD or DVD and test all thing out. Next it gives you the chance to see if you like the distro, they are all not the same. I would if you are new, suggest that you try Mint Mate or cinnamon, Ubuntu, Fedora Just to name a few. I think that on Distro Watch there is an article, top 10, look there to see the top 10 distros out there, some of them aim to make transition easy. Have a good time finding the right OS for you!

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