Spend enough time at African tech conferences and you’ll inevitably hear, or possibly get involved, in a debate about where African mobile developers should be concentrating their time. Should they focus on the now and build for feature phones, which still make up the majority of devices in the country? Or should they look to the future and build for smartphones?
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Well if mobile messenger and social network 2go is any indication, the answer lies somewhere in between. While the majority of the network’s users are still on feature phones, it’s also managed to achieve 2-million monthly active users on its Android app in just over a year.
Launched in 2009 2go has 50-million registered users, around 10-million of which are active on a monthly basis, sending 6-billion messages a month across Africa with the majority of users in Nigeria. 2go’s primary target market is Africa and emerging market countries where communication costs are high, users are price sensitive and feature phones dominate.
Despite the fact that 80% of African users own a feature phone, 2go head of product Peter Lockhart reckons that what the network’s managed to achieve is proof that the African smartphone marketplace is not only viable, but thriving.
While the high percentage of feature phones on the continent suggests that it will be worthwhile building for them for some time yet, it is something that’s already beginning to change, thanks largely to the entrance of affordable, Chinese-made smartphones onto the market.
“Though nowhere near an iPhone in terms of capacity,” Lockhart says, “these low-end smartphones – sometimes retailing for less than US$50 – have radically changed the marketplace. This is why when we decided to launch a 2go smartphone app we decided to develop for Android.”
He does however add that it wasn’t just a case of “build it and they will come”.
“Our understanding of the market – price sensitive users, expensive mobile data, low-bandwidth networks and a fragmented Android base – means that 2go is purpose-built for emerging markets. Our technology and ability to build technology that addresses these realities has been key to 2go for Android’s success.”
Lockhart also says that 2go has had to do everything in its power to give its users a high-end experience on these low-end devices:
“We therefore innovate constantly to ensure that 2go uses mobile data sparingly, is light and responsive, and delivers features expected of high-end social networking apps. Our latest version adds voice notes that enable users to send very compressed audio clips to one another – an important feature for users wanting to reduce expensive voice calls.”