Paul Buys a Dumb Phone
As a traveling American, I face the insane roaming costs of the US telephone companies, and so I use the work-around of having a local phone and swapping SIM cards in each country I visit. It’s inconvenient for me and for anyone who wants to talk to me, but it’s affordable. A few months ago, when my old traveling phone was getting tired, I tried to buy a new low cost traveling phone - that is, an inexpensive phone that I could just make local calls with.
I went into the Safaricom shop in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi - the mall that would be the site of a tragic terrorist attack and looting just a few weeks later - and asked one of the busy sales staff for “an inexpensive phone”. She kindly pulled out a Samsung Galaxy S2. “That’s great,” I said, “but that’s a smart phone. Do you have a dumb phone?” She didn’t quite understand and went on to show me a Windows Nokia phone. “No thanks,” I said, “I just want a feature phone. I’m going to use it for making occasional phone calls! You know, talking to people… You remember that, right?”
She began to understand. “Oh!”, she said, “I know what you want! I think we might still have some…” She opened a drawer, shuffling through old pieces of paper to look for the antique that I was asking for. “Hm,” she said, “maybe we sold the last one.” She called to her colleague: “Peter, do we have any more of those little Nokias? You know [slightly embarassed for me] the ones that just make phone calls?”
Peter found me a dumb phone, which I purchased, and still use. But what a shock to find that it was hard to find a phone that wasn’t a smart phone. (Of course, the Westgate Mall was not a typical retail outlet - it was one of the highest end shopping outlets in Africa. But still…)
The adoption of smart phones is mirroring the similar adoption of feature phones a decade ago: in 2004, there were 83 million mobile phones in Africa; in 2014, that number is estimated to be 860 million - tens time more in ten years. There are already an estimated 100 million smartphone users on the continent, and it has been predicted (By Jon Evans, a columnist for the prominent technology site TechCrunch) that by 2017, half of all African households will have a smartphone. Given that good smartphones can be had for less than 100 dollars, and the prices continue to drop, this prediction may be conservative. Just as Africa was able to leapfrog landlines and move directly to mobile phones, the continent appears to be poised to leapfrog over desktop computers and go directly to mobile devices.
For most Africans, their first computer will be a smartphone.