There’s fervour in Alpesh Patel’s voice when he talks about the market for mobile devices in Africa. And it’s not just because the founder and CEO of Mi-Fone has created the fastest growing mobile devices brand in the region – he is also inspired by the power that communication brings to people across the continent.
“By introducing mass market African consumers to more affordable handsets, we are helping them to be more productive,” he says. “The more access people have to communication devices, the more they are able to engage in commercial activities.”
Developing a new market
Patel launched the Mi-Fone brand of mobile devices in 2008, creating a whole new telecoms market category in the emerging mass market sector. The company has since sold more than one million units and made $20 million in revenue in three years.
A veteran of the mobile phone industry, he started his career by introducing mobile devices into the then unknown Chinese market. In the mid-1990s, he was the African regional director for a large telco, following which he joined Motorola as regional manager for Africa in 2002. He took the brand to number one in Kenya, DRC, Madagascar and Zambia, eventually becoming responsible for distributing over five million handsets within two years in the Middle East and Africa.
Armed with an in-depth knowledge of the African market, Patel says he became disappointed with the big cellphone brands. “Despite the millions that are made in this market, it’s still seen as a dumping ground for older technology. My aim was to meet the demand for quality mobile devices aimed at the masses.”
A business built on partnerships
Patel started the business in Johannesburg with his own savings and some great relationships. He found a procurement partner in China and several distributors in Kenya who had seen what he’d done for Motorola and were only too keen to be involved in his new venture.
The first year was tough. From the comfort of a monthly pay-cheque, he had to get used to the life of an early-stage entrepreneur. “I had gained experience in retail, marketing, shipping, and distribution, which helped. When I got my first purchase order for handsets from a company in Ghana, I knew that the business was going to take off. From there, word of mouth grew and today Mi-Fone is available in 12 African countries, as well as in India, via a mix of distributors, retailers and operators.”
Facing up to the challenges
His biggest challenge has always been the perception that Mi-Fone sells cheap Chinese phones which is ironic, he says, given the millions of high-end mobile devices that are manufactured in China. “We are slowly overcoming this view by leveraging the fact that Mi-Fone is a quality African brand that is not just about price, but is also about lifestyle.”
Another challenge he had to overcome was the difficulty of doing business in Africa, which he did through a strong focus on good governance and due diligence. “We don’t hand out any brown envelopes,” he says. “That sometimes makes it harder to earn business, but we are committed to transparency.”
A burgeoning market
The company holds huge promise in regions where young and savvy Internet users will never be able to afford a $500 laptop, but can quite easily come up with the money for Mi-Fone’s amazingly cheap devices (which start at $20) and give them the freedom to browse and access those all-important Facebook pages.
“We’re an African team and there is nothing stopping us,” he says. “Of the one billion people on the continent, only 5% have access to the Internet, and only 20 million use Facebook. The opportunities for expansion are limitless.”
Today, as the company celebrates its fourth anniversary, Patel employs 165 people and has set in motion a fundraising plan to enable more rapid growth. “The business was launched during the global recession and has done remarkably well. Now that we have four sets of financials behind us, we are starting to look for investors to enable the next phase.” n
Marketing the brand
Because Mi-Fone was competing with established brands, Patel made a few clever moves. One was to co-brand the devices and the packaging they came in, enabling operators and retailers to market their brand along with his.
“Marketing is our number one strength,” he says. “Anyone can go to China and procure phones. We home in on quality and packaging. Because we are marketing to people at the bottom of the consumer pyramid, we’ve also made good use of guerrilla marketing and social media.”
Mi-Fone communicates with the mass market in unique ways, bringing on board music and fashion ambassadors to market its devices to a youthful audience. “The best way to attract consumers to a brand is through emotional attachment.”
One example is Mi-Fone’s launch in Kenya of the Obama headset, which coincided with the election of the American president in 2008. “We sold 10 000 units in Kenya, based on his connection with the country.”
The company also partners with music businesses to give users content and generate revenue for artists at the same time.