Does Africa have enough potential to revive BlackBerry? Considering the size of its rising middle class, its consumer spending power and its increased rate of information and communications technology adoption and mobile penetration, the answer could be yes.
In 1999, Research in Motion, a Canadian technology firm, now called BlackBerry Ltd, launched the first BlackBerry smart phone. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, demand for the handhelds had soared – around the world and in Africa. The timing of BlackBerry’s emergence was perfect for Africa: at the turn of the millennium, information and communications technology (ICT) adoption and mobile penetration had begun to grow across the continent. Many countries started off with mobile telephony, while broadband technology gradually permeated Sub-Saharan Africa. With Africa online, a new frontier emerged for a global, knowledge-driven economy.
Initially, the trajectory of BlackBerry’s market share caused headaches for other phone makers in Africa. The continent, which had heavily depended on feature phones and was dominated by Nokia, had discovered a new status symbol, one its growing middle class craved.
The “BB” – as BlackBerry was fondly called in Africa’s largest market, Nigeria – came with seemingly boundless possibilities for fast, multimedia communication, and the opportunities it presented were unprecedented. Dynamic and reasonably priced compared to other devices, it was soon in high demand. Fast forward five years and the revolutionary device has almost been flushed out of the market.
Global sales of the BlackBerry plummeted as recalls of Z10 handsets and job cuts at the firm made headlines. According to a September 2013 Wall Street Journal article, BlackBerry announced plans to stop selling devices to consumers (as well as a 40 percent staff cut) following a failed attempt to regain market share. The company indicated that they would focus instead on the “corporate and professional customers who have historically made up the core of its subscriber base”. The company made negative headline after headline, announcing a loss of some $995 million in the third quarter of 2013, due to a near halving of sales to $1.6 billion, compared to net loss of $235 million and a revenue of $2.9 billion in quarter three of 2012.
It appears that BlackBerry’s decline began three years before the avalanche of bad news in 2013. The BlackBerry 10 system – its response to Apple’s innovative iPhone and the aggressive ramp-up of smart-phone production by Samsung and other players – came too late to save its dwindling market share. Samsung’s Galaxy series, running Android OS, continued to accrue sales globally as BlackBerry sales waned.
Nevertheless, the BlackBerry remains a revolutionary device that connects Africans in a way they had never experienced before. To date, its impact on communication in Africa can still be felt. Despite its seeming transformation from pioneer innovator to the next tech era casualty, BlackBerry has presented people with a cheaper, faster means of communication. As the continent’s middle class grows, its spending power might represent an opportunity to revive the fortunes of an ailing Canadian phone maker.
Currently, Africa and the Middle East account for 40 percent of BlackBerry’s total revenue. The phone maker owns 48 percent of the mobile market in South Africa and 70 percent of the Smartphone market. Three percent of BlackBerry users worldwide are Nigerian. African markets also offer a huge amount of room in which to expand and dominate. Africa’s mobile adoption is estimated to grow by 85 percent, or 900 million subscribers, over the next three years. According to research by Vodacom, BlackBerry has more customers in Africa than Android and iOS combined. In fact, BlackBerry says its devices account for half the Smartphones in Nigeria.
Nokia still leads the pack of phone makers in the African market, albeit with more sales from feature phones. The World Wide Worx’s Mobility 2014 survey, conducted among adult cell phone users living in cities and towns in South Africa (Africa’s second-largest economy), reveals that despite almost vanishing as a force in Western markets, BlackBerry has increased its market share locally from 18 percent to 23 percent thanks to its “continued aspirational appeal in younger markets.”
Another reason for BlackBerry’s sweeping adoption across the continent is the relatively low cost of data compared to other smart phones. In Nigeria, buying data plans for Tecno and Samsung – both control a substantial percentage of Nigeria’s Smartphone market – is quite expensive. Subscribing for data plans on
MTN, Etisalat, Glo or Airtel requires you to pay a certain amount to allow you to use unlimited BBM for one month. On a Blackberry device, once you subscribe for the BIS or BES package you can also access other apps that require data.
With the company looking to develop its dynamic BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) platform – a move that could attract users away from devices that run Android and iOS – BlackBerry may be able to create an alternate source of revenue that could make up for its plummeting status as a phone maker. In October 2013, BlackBerry launched a BBM app for Android- and iOS-powered devices. Over 20 million users downloaded the app in the first week. “We believe that BBM has the potential to become the number-one messaging client around the globe,” BlackBerry’s managing director for South and Southern Africa, Alexandra Zagur, said at the launch of the BlackBerry z30 in South Africa. One month after launch, according to BGR.com, the app was amongst the top five for download on iOS in 50 countries, including Africa’s biggest markets, South Africa and Nigeria. The messaging app is now available on all major platforms except Windows Phone. But the company faces stiff competition from other instant messaging platforms such as Wechat, Viber and Whatsapp. While these apps are either relatively cheap or entirely cost-free, the BBM app is relatively expensive in comparison and the company could still struggle to regain market share. For instance, in Nigeria, downloading the BBM app on an iOS or Android powered-device is free but you have to pay a certain amount to be able to use unlimited BBM for a month. If you exhaust your data plan on other apps before the month ends, you will have to pay another fee. Typically, a 3-GB plan for a month costs $65 on MTN and Etisalat, $60 on Glo and $90 on Airtel.
As Africa’s economic resurgence continues, ICT will penetrate the continent even further, and with mobile technology increasingly multi-purpose rather than voice-centric, young Africans will demand more from their devices. Where things currently stand, BlackBerry’s apparent inability to match the innovations of today’s leading device makers might eventually cost it a precious foothold in the African market. Even sales of a top-range BlackBerry phone like the Z30 compare badly with those of competitors, among them Samsung’s S4, Nokia’s Lumia, the iPhone 5 or even the Tecno Phantom, which has gradually gained acceptance and market share in Nigeria.
While it remains unclear whether BlackBerry will have any luck finding “corporate customers” in Africa or whether Africans follow the global trend away from the ailing device maker, the early success of the BBM app suggests BlackBerry could still represent a viable alternative to the main players. Considering the increasing population and spending power of Africa’s middle class, the possibility of ramping-up phone sales might again be on the cards if BlackBerry makes a few changes to its products and its marketing campaign. Producing emerging-markets specific phones, for example, tailored to suit the particular needs of its customers on the continent –such as longer-lasting batteries to tackle energy challenges – would serve the manufacturer well.