Africa’s love affair with BlackBerry

Cheap applications and data plans have enabled BlackBerry to carve out a niche in Africa.  Photograph: Africa Renewal / John Gillespie
Cheap applications and data plans have enabled BlackBerry to carve out a niche in Africa. Photograph: Africa Renewal / John Gillespie

It’s elegant, it’s hip and it’s one of the hottest phones on the African market. Nothing says “I am important” like a man or woman whipping out a BlackBerry smartphone. It’s easily recognizable with its wide screen and trademark keypad. According to Masahudu Ankiilu Kunateh, editor at, “What is your BB pin?” has become the ultimate sizing-up request. To be asked the question, he says, you have to be considered cool enough to own one.

Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that owns BlackBerry, has managed to carve itself a niche in Africa. In 2010, with the help of Brightstar, a global services company that works with key players in the wireless industry, it started distributing its gadgets throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Today South Africa boasts over 2.5 million active devices, according to World Wide Worx, a South African technology research firm. Nigeria has 2 million active devices.

A lot of phone companies are trying to tap into the African smartphone market, because of flagging sales elsewhere. Samsung and Nokia are competing for the Kenyan youth market, writes James Ratemo, online sub-editor at the Nation Media Group. Even RIM stocks went down by 70 per cent in late June, losing to Apple and Google in North America and Europe.

But the secret to BlackBerry’s success in Africa is its affordability. The BlackBerry Messenger application software, which enables people to share voice and text messages, pictures and video clips, is free. Affordable data plans, like those in South Africa, allow users to pay a flat-rate of $7 per month for Internet access. RIM of Africa has also partnered with top mobile carriers like Vodafone, MTN and Airtel, sharing profits instead of tying the device to one carrier, underscores Mr. Kunateh. And its signature feature — a secure, encrypted data system that makes it difficult for an outsider to monitor communications — could help it win over local businesses.

But nothing is set in stone. The Chinese company Huawei is a strong competitor with its low-end smartphones. Currently, its locally-manufactured Android phone, which goes for the equivalent of US$80, is a big hit in rural Kenya. Google, whose Android apps are the latest craze in sub-Saharan Africa, is also testing out the waters.

*Source Africa Renewal Online

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