October 15, 2018

The Chinese phone giant that beat Apple to Africa

One of China’s biggest smartphone makers has never sold a handset in the country. Yet thousands of miles away, it dominates markets across Africa. Unknown in the West, Transsion has left global players like  Samsung and Apple  trailing in its wake  in a continent that’s home to more than a billion people.

In cities like Lagos, Nairobi and Addis Ababa, busy streets are awash with the bright blue shopfronts of Transsion’s flagship brand, Tecno. In  China, the company doesn’t have a single store, and its towering headquarters in the southern megacity of  Shenzhen  goes largely unnoticed among skyscrapers bearing the names of more famous  Chinese tech firms.

In Edna Mall on the bustling Bole Road in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Mesert Baru poses for her Tecno Camon i. “This phone is seriously nice for selfies,” says the 35-year-old shop assistant, admiring the picture she just took.

Melania Trump says she may be the world’s ‘most bullied’ person

Mesert’s satisfaction is no accident. Tecno cameras have been optimized for African complexions, explains Arif Chowdhury, vice president of Transsion. “Our cameras adjust more light for darker skin, so the photograph is more beautiful,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve become successful.”

Transsion founder George Zhu had spent nearly a decade traveling Africa as head of sales for another mobile phone company when he realized that selling Africans handsets made for developed markets was the wrong approach.

His timing could hardly have been better. By the mid-2000s, the Chinese government, under its “Going Out” strategy, was encouraging entrepreneurs to look abroad and forge stronger ties with African nations in particular. Cell phones were spreading rapidly in China, but in Africa — which has a roughly similar population — they were still a very rare luxury.

Africa, in other words, could be the new China.

In 2006, Zhu launched Tecno in Nigeria, targeting Africa’s most populous nation first. From the start, the company’s motto was “think global, act local,” which meant making phones that met Africans’ specific needs.

US holding knife to our throat, says China

“When we started doing business in Africa, we noticed people had multiple SIM cards in their wallet,” Chowdhury says. They would awkwardly swap the cards throughout the day to avoid the steep charges operators would levy for calling different networks, says Nabila Popal, who tracks the use of devices in Africa for research firm IDC. “They can’t afford two phones,” says Chowdhury, “so we brought a solution to them.” Zhu made all Tecno handsets dual SIM.

More innovations followed. Transsion opened research and development centers in China, Nigeria and Kenya to work out how to better appeal to African users. Local languages such as Amharic, Hausa and Swahili were added to keyboards and phones were given a longer battery life.