China’s Smartphone Dominance in Africa Is No Accident

You’ve likely never heard of Transition, but the little-known Chinese smartphone manufacturer is quietly taking over Africa’s mobile market. The company doesn’t sell devices in the United States or Europe. It’s not even a top 10 brand in China. It does, however, command 30% of Africa’s smartphone market, with close to a 100m phones sold there in 2017 alone.

Transsion’s rise to prominence, the subject of a recent profile in Bloomberg Businessweek, is not all that unusual for Chinese companies on the continent. Starting in 2006, Transsion began building cheap smartphones designed specifically for the African customer passed over by Western manufacturers. They began with phones that were 20% cheaper than market leaders, and then added features African customers wanted such as large batteries to make up for spotty power grids and multiple SIM card options.

Rapid urbanization, the growth of the middle class, and unprecedented connectivity over the last decade have created a new class of customers in Africa. Transsion recognized the opportunity others had passed up and jumped head-first into the market.

Is Transsion’s rise good for African development? Access to cheap smartphones has dramatically changed the financial prospects for millions of people. Financial tools now exist for those at the bottom of the pyramid to save and share money in a secure, efficient, and affordable manner through applications on their phones. Entrepreneurs with invaluable local knowledge are creating more digital applications perfectly suited to the needs of their target markets. Transsion made much of this critical development possible but given its connections to the Chinese government in the form of undisclosed government-backed investment, it’s subject to several forces beyond its control.

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