Chinese smartphone makers, Tecno, Konka and other Asian brands like KZG and Itel have been carrying out huge marketing of their brands in Rwanda over the past year.
Their strategy is multipronged - they are radio and TV smartphone brands adverts as well as billboards of the same along city streets and other places.
Frank Gakara, the general manager of the Tecno Rwanda franchise, told Business Times that Rwandans, especially the middle-income earners, prefer smartphones, thanks to their many user-friendly applications.
Most Rwandans cannot afford high-end brands like Samsung's Galaxy series, Apple's iPhone, BlackBerry or Alcatel, opting for the more affordable Chinese-made phones.
However, it is no secret that popular iPhone maker, Apple, assembles its products in China to cut costs.
Apple launched its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in September, with the devices going for up to $1,000 each (Rwf700,000) in some Kigali electronics stores.
“I love iPhones, but I’ll have to wait until they are affordable; may be after six or eight months,” says Gaella Kayihura, an iphone enthusiast.
She bought the previous model, the iPhone 5s using a similar formula - by waiting for its price to drop. Other people buy the high-end brands on hire-purchase.
Why are they so expensive for the average Rwandan?
Though some people, especially the corporates, would like to acquire the latest smartphone brands at any cost, Gakara feels the Rwandan market, just like the rest of the African market has been ignored by large smartphone makers like Apple, HTC, Samsung and Blackberry.
He says brands like Tecno have developed their African growth strategy by producing and selling volumes at lower prices compared to the other brands.
“The Chinese have prioritised the African market… they have looked at the gaps in the market and tried to fix them. Previously, we didn’t have service phone centres, but today we have five of them in the city and others in most of the districts,” notes Gakara.
“People love something that is affordable, can perform all the functions and are easy to repair.”
Gakara understands very well the Rwandan mobile phones market since he has imported and sold phones for the past 10 years.
He says one of the challenges phone dealers are still facing is the perception among Rwandans that Chinese phones are not durable.
“Between 2007 and 2011, substandard Chinese phones flooded the market and many people lost a lot of money as the phones could barely last a month or so. It was also a big problem for importers as we could not guarantee their quality from suppliers in Dubai,” he explains.
The problem eased in 2011, when the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (Rura) and Rwanda Standards Board banned the importation of the substandard phones, giving space for the genuine products to thrive.
Gakara says the branding and opening up of service centres across the country was one of the ways of trying to change people’s mind-set and assure them of product quality.
Tecno plans to set up an electronics factory at the Kigali Special Economic Zone and a ‘Tecno building’ in town, once they get the necessary approvals from the Rwanda Development Board.
“We want to support government’s vision of making Rwanda an Information Communication Technology (ICT) hub. The factory will enable us supply affordable electronic devices like smartphones in the country and in the region, thereby reducing transport costs between China and Rwanda,” he said.
June statistics from Rura show that there were 2,571,500 mobile Internet subscribers, representing a 25 per cent penetration rate for smartphones.
The data also indicated that the mobile phone penetration rate in Rwanda stood at 7,214,385 people, leaving much more to be desired in terms of growing the number of smartphone users.