‘Proudly South African’ mobile devices going cheap, but at what cost?

16 July 2014 News

There is no doubt that the intellectual property necessary for the development of smart mobile devices is available in South Africa. By tapping in to this knowledge and carefully considering the specific needs of the local environment, developers are able to bring cost effective and efficient devices to the African market. Dataweek spoke to two local development companies about what they have in store.

Zest T1 dual-SIM smartphone

Zest T1 smartphone.
Zest T1 smartphone.

Afrihost and Zest Mobile have developed a dual-SIM smartphone which is currently the only local smartphone to offer Android KitKat and OTA (over the air) updates. The Zest T1, which will retail at R1999, with 1 GB/month of free data for a year, has a 1,3 GHz quad core processor, an 8 megapixel camera, a 4,5” qHD LCD with IPS glass multi-touch screen, micro SD card slot, integrated GPS, 8 GB of Ram and Bluetooth 4.0, with a screen pixel density of 245 ppi. The 165 g phone has a battery capacity of 1600 mAh, providing users with 200 hours of standby time and 7 hours of talk time.

According to Zest Mobile CEO David Lindeque, the introduction of a locally developed smartphone means that more people will have access to up-to-date, powerful technology. “It also means that people no longer need to pay international firms a massive premium to have access to decent technology,” he says.

“However, simply offering powerful and quality devices was only one side of the coin. We wanted to ensure more people are connected so we contacted Afrihost and the two firms instantly found a common ground and goal. We both share the same vision and want to change the mobile industry in South Africa. We aim to make it more competitive and with greater value propositions than previously available.

“The Zest T1 device differs from other local smartphones in that it is vastly more powerful yet with extremely competitive pricing. Couple the T1 with 1 GB free mobile data per month for 1 year, and you currently have an unmatched value proposition,” he adds.

Launched on 18 June, the Zest T1 sold just over 3000 units on its first day. “We have been overwhelmed by the response and support, so we are simply not sure what volumes to expect in the next 12 months. We have the capacity to produce large numbers and we have made a firm commitment to the quality, value and local support for the brand. We are confident we can make a significant impact in the mobile industry,” says Lindeque.

The device and all future devices are developed by the Zest team, which comprises individuals in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. “The team is a unique and talented group of individuals that design products that they would personally want to use. Certain aspects and pieces of the product package have been outsourced internationally. This is common practice in the technology industry. Apple, Microsoft, Motorola and many others all use international supply chains to ensure they deliver the best product possible,” Lindeque explains.

“Any firm that claims they produce smartphones locally is communicating a fallacy. The parts necessary for a quality device (processors, camera hardware and storage) simply cannot be produced or sourced locally. We are as local as any other ‘proudly local’ technology firm. In addition, certain countries specialise in the manufacturing of technology parts and by outsourcing to these nations, we can deliver a product that is powerful, top quality and affordable,” he says.

Lindeque says that the company has plans to expand to other countries in Africa and is currently exploring a number of avenues. “However, our focus in the short-term is South African growth, as we believe there is significant opportunity for a device like the Zest T1 and its successors,” he concludes.

Solar powered tablet

Millbug Vuya tablet.
Millbug Vuya tablet.

The Millbug Vuya tablet is the brainchild of Sabelo Sibanda and Thulisile Volwana. Interestingly, neither of these entrepreneurs are engineers; they simply have a passionate spirit for developing solutions to needs. Armed with degrees in management and economics respectively, this dynamic duo identified the need for an affordable tablet geared initially towards the rural education sector.

After completing a number of online electronics and programming courses, the Millbug team was ready to tackle the development of the Vuya tablet, a 7” device which has a 1,2 GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB of storage, expandable to 32 GB. Able to run all the popular apps available commercially, the Vuya tablet is set to rock the local market with its incredibly low price tag of R1499.

Sibanda says that Fred Roed of World Wide Creative, a digital marketing company, encouraged them to pursue entrepreneurship, regarding the digital development possibilities in Africa. The Vuya developed on the back of Millbug’s e-commerce website which aimed to bring cost effective products to college and university students and other non-working young adults. “The difficulty all of the clients shared was the inability to effectively view products on a small smartphone. We decided that the supply of an affordable tablet would provide the necessary solution.”

After considering the importation of tablets, the Millbug team realised that the only feasible alternative would be the development of a local device. After producing a 20-page schematic and consulting with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth regarding the photovoltaics, they approached an overseas manufacturer to develop a prototype.

Sibanda explains that the decision to move manufacturing offshore was not taken lightly. “Pricing was obviously a driving factor but apart from that, the overseas manufacturers are geared up to leverage the local infrastructure, which supports mass manufacturing. All the component suppliers are located within a short distance of each other, making logistics a cinch. This is a lesson for South Africa and could definitely gain impetus if government stood behind the promotion of similar concepts in the bespoke industrial development zones in the likes of Port Elizabeth and East London.”

After developing the prototype and undertaking the necessary testing, Millbug began the complex process of acquiring approvals from SARS, the SABS, ICASA and the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS).

The resultant Vuya tablet, which was released to the market in late June, has dual power charging capability: DC (via USB or a power outlet) and solar. A separate photovoltaic unit was developed and provides 5000 mAh which, together with the 3000 mAh battery contained in the tablet, provides eight hours of operation time, even when Wi-Fi is activated.

Millbug approached a number of local Wi-Fi companies, including Allan Knott Craig Jnr of Project Isizwe (originally from Port Elizabeth) who is part of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University alumni. Further assistance on the development of the tablet was received from the Port Elizabeth SEDA ICT Incubator and local branch of Shanduka Black Umbrellas (of which Millbug is a member).

Sibanda points out that less than 1% of content available on the Internet is from Africa. “We can be innovative online and implement technologically driven problem solving, which relates directly to the African scenario. We would like the Vuya tablet to be a catalyst for this process and we will be promoting bespoke apps that address this need. The solar power capability allows the device to be used in even the most remote locations and is ideal given the fact that South Africa alone experiences an average 2500 hours of sunshine annually.”

Sibanda says that there has been great interest shown in the tablet by other African countries. Volwana, who had a rural upbringing, has used her own experience to devise a product that would be easy to use for clients who have never previously been exposed to such technology. The simplicity of the Vuya makes it extremely attractive to a large market and enquiries have already been received from Ghana and the DRC, amongst others.

Sibanda anticipates the production of a minimum of 75 000 to 100 000 units in the 12 months following the Vuya’s launch. “The sky is the limit and we have been in communication with a number of international companies who are captivated by the tablet’s WiFi capabilities. We are hoping that the anticipated success of the tablet will encourage the local market to invest in a manufacturing hub that will keep the money in South Africa and simultaneously create a large number of jobs. There is no reason why East London or Port Elizabeth could not become a hub for Africa and the Middle East.”

Editor’s note

For the record: there are currently, to the best of my knowledge, no smartphones, tablets or similar ‘smart’ consumer devices being manufactured in South Africa (I would be delighted if somebody who knows better were to contradict me on that point, by the way).

Despite Afrihost and Zest Mobile stirring pride in the hearts of South African consumers, technology experts and mainstream media using slogans like ‘For Africans by Africans’ and evocative words like ‘homegrown’, the fact remains that the Zest T1 is made in China – it says so on the box the phone comes in. Don’t worry, Dataweek has no ambition of becoming a consumer watchdog; my interest in this subject is primarily in what locally ‘designed’, ‘developed’, or ‘conceived’ products like this mean (or could mean, or perhaps should mean) for the local electronics manufacturing industry.

Another South African company, CZ Electronics, had plans to release a smartphone of its own early this year through a partnership with Seemehale Telecoms, but at the time of that announcement, Dataweek was able to confirm that these were to be imported from the Taiwanese manufacturer as semi knockdown kits to be assembled at CZ premises in Boksburg, so technically still not manufactured in SA. I had hoped to include input from CZ in this article but repeated promises to respond to us went unfulfilled. The company was recently reported to be in a legal battle with Seemehale when it spurned Seemehale in favour of a merger with Mint Mobile; one can only hope this hasn’t derailed their plans for introducing their own range of smartphones and tablets.

Call me overly optimistic or naïve (I prefer the word ‘dreamer’) but might we not be living through a brief window of opportunity for South Africa to create an identity as Africa’s ‘smart device manufacturing hub’? Easy question to ask but, granted, a multi-faceted strategy would be required and there are many complications that come into the equation. I certainly don’t claim to know the answers so I reached out to the dti to find out what they think. Alas, after establishing contact, repeated attempts to get answers to this, and other difficult questions, have met with nothing but promises by a dti spokesperson. We will continue our attempts to prise a statement from the department.

This country is blessed with its current crop of fearless, ambitious young entrepreneurs like the duo behind Millbug – and believe me, there are more of them out there; a lot more. When it is financially unfeasible (but not technically unfeasible, mind you) for innovators like this to make their products in SA, maybe we’ve already lost to China and the likes. If that is the case, so be it; there’s no shame in that. The manufacturers in those highly industrious countries have killed, or at least mortally wounded, many other countries’ industries, so we wouldn’t be the first, or the last. I just wish I could feel confident that we’re giving it our best shot. And that our internal political problems will not be allowed to spoil what may be a golden opportunity, never to be repeated.


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