MTN’s Ikosora phone will democratise Rwanda’s data usage

There has been one fundamental flaw in Rwanda’s high mobile phone penetration vis-à-vis the government’s impressive country-wide investment in internet infrastructure such as fiber-to-home, with efforts in these two seemingly falling short when juxtaposed with the national data usage statistics.

As of December 2018, over 9.6million mobile cellphones were active in Rwanda, according to statistics by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency. But only less than 50 percent of those handsets were connected to internet/data services, (Due to high cost of smartphones as well as data charges).

But recent product development innovation announcements by leading corporate brands in Rwanda could potentially close the gap between government’s internet infrastructure investment effort and actual data usage penetration as more Rwandans are enabled to join the data usage community.

Note that the digital-divide is not a Rwandan problem but a continent-wide phenomenon in response to which, the Mara Corporation decided to invest in establishing a Smartphone factory in Rwanda with a wide geographical scope targeting poorer Africans that currently cannot afford a smartphone.

The result of that effort is the Mara X and Mara Z that are currently being piloted on the Rwandan market priced at US$139 (over Rwf120,000) and $199 (over Rwf170,000) respectively. Obviously, Mara’s intentions are noble and mean well for the Africans currently digitally excluded.

Unfortunately, the Mara X and Z will have to fend-off a fierce fight with the unforgiving market forces fueled by the more affordable Chinese smartphone brands such as the mighty Tecno whose cheapest model is available to many at US$55 or less than Rwf50,000.

Fact is, long before Mara’s noble African solution to an African challenge of bridging the digital divide, the Chinese had long taken note of the opportunity and they have been actively helping us fix it; this is because, like Africa, China too, has a huge population of poor nationals for whom it was producing.

But as more and more Chinese conquer poverty with their fast improving incomes, that hitherto home based-market of cheap smartphones gradually shifted focus to exporting to African destinations, where millions are still trapped in poverty thanks to stunted incomes;the Chinese have been there for them.

So in terms of solving the fundamental problem, which is putting on the market a truly affordable smartphone for Africans, the Mara X and Z clearly have a long way to go, to displace the more affordable Chinese brands that have over the years warmed their way into the hearts of many African users.

Nonetheless, the Mara Phone factory is still good news for the Rwandan economy as it will certainly employ many Rwandans directly and dozens more, along its production, marketing and supply value chain, ultimately contributing to the country’s tax revenue collection to fuel national development.

But what warmed my heart more recently is MTN-Rwanda’s unveiling of what I think is a more forward thinking product development innovation that will serve as a practical solution to the central problem we are currently baffled with; low data usage penetration due to expensive smartphones on the market.

The telecom thought leader’ new smartphone, christened ‘Ikosora’ will ‘not only democratize data but also digitally empower many Rwandans’ as Prasad Gokhale former Samsung Vice President for IT and Mobile in Australia said in a comment to MTN-Rwanda CEO Bart Hofker’s LinkedIn Post this week.

My initial thought to MTN Ikosora unveiling was, ‘oh! What a missed opportunity to launch it during the anniversary celebrations!’

See, MTN-Rwanda spent most of last year celebrating two decades in Rwanda. But it was a generally lukewarm campaign that was marred by several negative brand perception issues mainly resulting from unreliable service, poor signals and run-ins with the sector regulator.

It turned out that during this time of brand upheaval, MTN-Rwanda was also carrying a ‘pregnancy’ as confirmed by the ‘recent birth’ of ‘Ikosora’ which loosely translates to ‘the resolution/solution.’ In Kinyarwanda, ‘gukosora’ means ‘correcting’ and MTN’s new product innovation seems to fit the bill.

Here is why; with inbuilt 3G capability, Ikosora runs on KaiOS (a lightweight Linux-based OS) and comes with pre-installed apps including Facebook, YouTube, Google Maps, Search and Assistant viewable on a 2.4-inch screen; users can also download WhatsApp from the KaiStore all supported by 256MB RAM and 512MB of storage. Ikosora is also a dual-sim supporting a microSD card with up to 32GB of storage.

With a front & rear camera, FM radio, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and up to five days of battery-life, one can safely say thatfor just US$22 (less-than Rwf20,000), MTN Rwanda is giving the lowest-income Rwandan that hitherto didn’t afford a smartphone, the value and user-experience equivalent to Champaign at a Primus beer price, if I am to put it metaphorically.

This product development innovation by MTN-Rwanda also puts within reach, the government of Rwanda’s 2020 goal of achieving more than 60 percent internet penetration. E-Commerce enterprises are also on the rise and with Ikosora bringing more Rwandans online, the customer base will triple.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.