Rwanda Takes The Lead Again, Launches First ‘Made In Africa’ Smartphones
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Rwanda’s Mara Group launched two smartphones on Monday, describing them as the first “Made in Africa” models and giving a boost to the country’s ambitions to become a regional technology hub.
Mara is producing two types of smartphone in Rwanda, using Google’s Android Operating System: The Mara X with 16GB storage space will retail for 120,250 Rwandan francs ($130), while the more advanced Mara Z model with 32GB storage is on sale for around 175,750 Rwandan francs ($190), the company said.
They will compete with Samsung, whose cheapest smartphone costs 50,000 Rwandan francs ($54), and non-branded phones at 35,000 Rwandan francs ($37).
Mara Group CEO Ashish Thakkar said it was targeting customers willing to pay more for quality.
“This is the first smartphone manufacturer in Africa,” Thakkar told Reuters after touring the company alongside Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame.
Companies assemble smartphones in Egypt, Ethiopia, Algeria and South Africa, but import the components, he said.
“We are actually the first who are doing manufacturing. We are making the motherboards, we are making the sub-boards during the entire process,” he said. “There are over 1,000 pieces per phone.”
Thakkar said the plant had cost $24 million and could make 1,200 phones per day.
President Kagame hailed the launch as another breakthrough for development in Rwanda, which has enjoyed rapid economic growth in recent years and gained a reputation as a hub of innovation.
“The Mara Phone joins a growing list of high-quality products that are made in our country,” the president said at the Mara Phones Factory which is situated on the outskirts of Kigali.
Kagame described the factory as a “complex manufacturing operation requiring significant technical skill and expertise. It is another milestone on our journey to a high tech ‘Made in Rwanda’ industry.”
Kagame said he hoped the phone would increase Rwanda’s smartphone usage, currently at around 15%.
“Rwandans are already using smartphones but we want to enable many more. The introduction of Mara phones will put smartphones ownership within reach of more Rwandans,” Kagame said.
Mara Group hopes to profit from the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, a pact aimed at forming a 55-nation trade bloc, to boost sales across Africa, Thakkar said.
The agreement is due to begin trading in July next year, aiming to unite 1.3 billion people and create a $3.4 trillion economic bloc. But it is still in the very early stages and no timelines have been agreed for abolishing tariffs.
The Mara Group, a pan-African business headquartered in Dubai, says the factory will deliver “high quality smartphones at an affordable price.”
Mara CEO Ashish Thakkar said the devices would address a widespread need and create opportunities.
“We realized a few years ago that to create positive social impact on our continent...we need to have high quality and affordable smartphones,” said Thakkar. “This will enable financial inclusion.”
The CEO added that many consumers in African countries had been forced to choose between phones that were "high quality but not affordable, or affordable but not high quality.”
Thakkar also stressed his company's commitment to supporting development in Rwanda, noting that 90% of the 200 factory employees are Rwandans and 60% are women.
Mara is not the first company to claim to have produced the first African-made smartphone.
South African start-up Onyx Connect unveiled a low-cost device in 2017.
But where Onyx imported parts for its phones, Mara says the entirety of its product is produced and assembled in Rwanda.
“The entire manufacturing process, from the motherboard all the way to the packaging of the phone is done in our newly-opened factory,” Eddy Sebera, Mara’s country manager for Rwanda, told CNN.
The company is anticipating high demand for its products. Sebera says the factory has capacity to produce a “few million phones per year,” which is expected to scale up as demand increases.
While the initial target market is domestic, the company is also hoping to cultivate export markets for its products.
Rwanda’s ICT Minister Paula Ingabire hopes the plant can play a role in creating jobs and developing skills.
“This plant will hire and train professionals for higher-skilled manufacturing jobs,” she told CNN.
The number of employees is projected to rise from around 200 to more than 500 by its fifth year of operation. The minister also expects domestic production to increase smartphone penetration by “at least 10%,” which will improve access to services and "drive financial inclusion in rural communities through mobile financial services.”
Ingabire adds that the Mara plant will complement the government's ambitious Digital Ambassadors Program, which aims to achieve 100% digital literacy among youths aged 16-30 and for 60% of the adult population by 2024.