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.
Watch List: 11 Teen Entrepreneurs Who Have Launched Successful Businesses
These teens are proving that you don’t need a driver’s licence – or the ability to vote – to create and execute a successful start-up.
In South Africa youth entrepreneurship is encouraged as the best way to build the economy. Teens are no longer relying on tertiary education to jumpstart their careers, as many high school students become budding entrepreneurs. From make-up to confectionary and tech-centred ventures, youth entrepreneurship is taking the business world by storm.
“It’s easier than ever to become an entrepreneur, and technology has a lot to do with it. You’re a tech-savvy millennial, and Internet and mobile technologies make it easier to connect and identify with people, based on shared values and ideals,” says Michael Freestone, founder of the MJF Group. “All entrepreneurs wonder if their companies will succeed, but you don’t really know until you try. So, do it while you’re young and have little or nothing to lose.”
And that’s exactly what teenagers across the country are doing. While being a teenager is stressful enough, without worrying about marketing and your bottom line – these young entrepreneurs thrive on success, which must be their secret sauce to their winning business ideas.
10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets
The future of entrepreneurship has never looked so bright…these young entrepreneurs share their wisdom around building a successful business.
Natural Talent Can Become Your Success
Thabo Khumalo – ToVch
“I learnt to design and sew while assisting my mother who was a seamstress, and that is when I realised that I had a talent to create,” Thabo Khumalo explains. “But I never knew I was an entrepreneur.” Thabo Khumalo started his company ToVch in 2010 and has since appeared in South African Fashion Week, Soweto Fashion Week and Mpumalanga Fashion Week.
Khumalo has a small but engaged audience, who he communicates directly with. “The brand has a dedicated audience, and the social media presence also allows me to continuously scan the fashion environment to keep up with external forces.”
One of the most challenging aspects of launching his businesses was marketing the brand with limited funds. He used social media and word-of-mouth to market. “On social media, people share your brand with others simply because they want to,” says Khumalo. “It’s a powerful platform, and it does not cost anything.” Khumalo built up his company using support from a strong online network, which became his marketing strategy.
For Founder Of National Tekkie Tax Day Having A Higher (Business) Purpose Keeps Her Driving Forward
The NGO space isn’t easy. It’s a constant uphill battle to connect scarce resources with the vulnerable. Annelise de Jager has persevered in this space because she’s tapped into her personal purpose and values.
- Player: Annelise de Jager
- Initiative: National Tekkie Tax Day
- Launched: 2013
- Visit: www.tekkietax.co.za
Use your purpose to drive you forward
Connect your purpose with what you do, and you’ll find untapped reserves of perseverance and the discipline needed to achieve your goals.
Purpose before profit is not a new concept in business. In fact, it underlines the motivations behind some of the most successful entrepreneurs. It’s also not reserved for social enterprises alone.
However, it is in the social entrepreneurship and charitable spaces that living one’s purpose first found a foothold, mostly because without a strong purpose, the work would just be too hard, and many would give up.
Annelise de Jager, founder of National Tekkie Tax Day, unpacks how she’s used living her purpose to drive her forward, even when she’s faced almost insurmountable challenges and disappointments.
Make ‘living a life that matters’ intrinsic to everything you do.
“I was lucky in that I didn’t ever need to sit down and say, ‘I want my life to matter, so I need to do x, y, z’,” says Annelise. “It was intrinsic for me. However, in the past five years I’ve become acutely aware of it, and I’ve seen how important the ability to look beyond oneself is when you’re facing disappointment and challenges.
“It helps you look beyond the now, find a solution and keep pushing on, because there is a bigger goal at stake. The biggest revelation for me has been that anyone can figure this out and use it as a tool to achieve their dreams and purpose — you just need to trigger your intrinsic motivators.
“Figure out what’s really important to you, and then align this with what you’re doing, in both your business and personal journeys. Robin Bank’s Mind Power and Shaping your Destiny courses are a great place to start.”
Don’t be afraid to ask what’s next
Critical to Annelise’s journey has been the realisation that when goals are met, we need to ask ourselves: What’s next? “Too many people achieve their goals and then feel adrift. You should meet your goals. Your ultimate vision should change. That’s growth, and it’s critical if you want to keep moving forward.
“Our experiences inform our knowledge base and world views, and so as you live and run your business, that view should be changing, bringing with it new challenges and perceptions. Don’t be scared of it; embrace it.”
Annelise went to Potchefstroom University to study social work where she joined the university’s musical revue group, the Alabama Student Company. “Alabama was given the opportunity to tour Taiwan, but I was about to graduate. Travel is high on my personal values list, so I started a second degree in communications to stay in university — and — in Alabama.”
New experiences can be the source of great ideas and strength
Studying communications opened Annelise to a new discipline that she loved. “Marketing and communications are so filled with energy — an energy social work didn’t possess. I loved both, and I wanted to find a way to meld them together. This would ultimately shape my business, The Marketing Team, after I’d been a social worker for a few years. Don’t be afraid to adjust your plans based on new experiences; they can be the source of our greatest ideas and strengths.”
No experience is ever wasted
“We spend too much time trying to plan exactly what we should be doing, where and when, instead of following our hearts and instincts,” says Annelise. “No experience is ever wasted. Once I discovered my love for communications, I questioned whether I’d wasted four years studying social work. I hadn’t.
“Both disciplines became the bedrock of how I would assist the charitable space in South Africa. Experiences open our eyes, our hearts, and our understanding. They give us empathy and patience. They allow us to view things from other perspectives. If you want to really make a difference in other peoples’ lives, these traits are invaluable.”
Be open to finding answers in unexpected places
“By 2004 I felt rudderless,” says Annelise. “I’d been running my own business, handling communications and marketing for NGOs, developing campaigns and even assisting NGOs to run more as businesses than under-funded organisations, but it didn’t feel like I was doing enough.
“Part of the problem was that you can only give people the tools to work with, you can’t make them use them. Another problem was under-funding. Corporates spend billions each year on CSI projects but they don’t like to fund salaries and basic operational expenses.
“It’s frustrating because volunteers can’t do what needs to be done — most households need two breadwinners, which limits the availability of volunteers to assist.
“I was looking for a way to add more value. Should I start my own NGO? Where could I make the biggest impact? I’d been offered an excellent coaching position, which would allow me to walk away from the problems this sector deals with daily. It was tempting, but it wasn’t what I wanted.
“At that time I attended the Global Day of Prayer in Argentina on behalf of a client. It was at that conference that I had an almost supernatural experience. I left knowing exactly what my purpose was.
“How these realisations come to you is less important than the fact that you’re open to them. Deep down I knew what I wanted and needed — I just needed the courage and fortitude to follow my path. My experience in Argentina gave that to me because I allowed it to.”
Always find the strength to persevere.
Nothing worth doing is ever easy. In the NGO space, this is particularly true. “I developed the idea for National Tekkie Tax Day because NGOs constantly asked me to help them develop funding campaigns. I developed this fundraising model when I launched Casual Day and ran the project successfully for 18 years.
“But I also believe the NGO space can benefit from a more unified mindset to overcome donor confusion and fatigue. This is my new focus, but it’s difficult to get organisations to shift their mindsets. National Tekkie Tax Day is a step in this direction.
“It encompasses 12 national NGOs and 1 000 regional organisations across five categories — but there’s one product and one national marketing drive. Donors can choose a category to support.
“I’ve needed to persevere to help NGOs see the benefits in working collaboratively, and corporates to see the benefits of supporting the operational costs of NGOs.
“I don’t have a high profile job at a top company. People don’t call you back in my world. And yet you need to keep pushing forward against incredible headwinds.
“I wake up each morning and repeat the mantra that my success helps everybody; my failure helps nobody. There won’t always be easy wins, but with the right purpose you can persevere. You can make a difference.”
Support National Tekkie Tax Day on 26 May 2017
12 national charities | 1 000 local charities | 5 sectors to support
Animals, Bring Hope, Children, Disability, Education
Available at Toys R Us, Clicks and Babies R Us or online at www.tekkietax.co.za
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