If you are old enough to remember the 2000s, you’ll remember how phone manufacturers were in a battle to make the smallest phone possible. That fight meant they had to figure out; how to shrink various computer components, how to optimize software to work with the resultant smaller batteries etc.
All that made the behemoths we have in our pockets today possible. We walk around with computers in our pockets which are more powerful than the ones that were used to land man on the moon. While they are cheaper than those 60s room-sized mainframe computers, they are still not affordable enough for the last few billion people still cut off from the internet.
Android to the rescue
Android is single-handedly responsible for getting more people online than any other software in history. Google, Android’s vendor, does not charge manufacturers to use the software and this significantly drives down the cost to produce an Android phone.
The phone manufacturers have taken this further and tried to one-up each other on producing the cheapest smartphone possible. Hence, the sub-$100 phones we see.
This is why we love Android. We recently found out that 50% of Zimbabwean households have a smartphone and that about 90% of those phones run Android. However, to get the remaining households online, we have to look beyond Android.
Android is a smartphone operating software and so allows for all the fancy features we techies love. This however makes it a little bloated for the average budget phone.
The main reason some of those cheap Itel phones perform so poorly is that the software is too heavy for the cheaper hardware components they use. It would defeat the purpose of these affordable phones to use better processors which would increase the final price.
Google recognized this and launched the Android One program and the Go apps. Android One is meant to be the bare bones necessary for a smartphone experience and light enough to run better on the low-end internal components in budget phones. The promise being no duplicate apps and software provided and supported by Google themselves, with no manufacturer modifications.
The Go apps are the stripped-down versions of their popular core apps, missing some features but keeping the main ones. This combination allows for a better experience on low-end Android phones.
Problem is, Android One and Go apps make for a lighter load but are still not light enough to produce a good phone for less than $100. The sub-$100 Android phones provide a ‘well, it’s what I can afford at the moment’ experience, not an enjoyable one. The $40 Itel A14 is quite painful to use.
This software aims to ‘bring the best of smartphones’ to affordable phones. It runs on keypad feature phones (mbudzi) and yet is rich in features whilst using way less memory (just 256mb will do) and less power than Android. This recipe makes for a decent performance even when using weak internal components all while getting excellent battery life.
The main features of KaiOS being; support for 4G and WiFi which allows for good browsing speeds, GPS which allows for location services, and app support allowing for services like WhatsApp and Facebook.
This combination of features and low power and memory usage allow for compelling smartphone-like experiences at very affordable prices. That sounds promising because cost is indeed the main reason almost half of Zimbabweans do not have smartphones, let alone computers.
The Zimbabwean context
We learnt that 88.5% of Zimbabweans have a mobile phone. Considering that most Zimbabweans are under the age of 15, we can safely conclude that almost all adults have phones. However, only 58.8% of those phones are smartphones which means that only 50.1% of Zim households have access to the internet.
Zeroing in on the rural areas reveals that only 5.8% have computers and most that do have phones, have feature phones (mbudzi).
These feature phones are way more affordable than even the $40 Itels. In the Zimbabwean context, $40 is a lot of money seeing as the average monthly income for a rural household is $75. Which is not enough for their daily needs and so the $40 smartphone becomes a luxury.
You can get a feature phone on the streets of Harare for $8 and with great sacrifice, a rural household can save for one. Saving up $40 is just not feasible for many.
So, it is encouraging to see that even this early into the KaiOS journey, we have units retailing for $17. After transport and other costs, that phone can be had for less than $25 in Zimbabwe. If smuggled like most phones are and bypassing the 40% tax (customs and VAT), we’re looking at even more savings.
That is much cheaper than the Androids and the KaiOS team is working to make sure devices running their OS compete directly with feature phones. They are targeting the sub-$10 price range and that would be a total game changer. Those households that are only able to afford mbudzis would have a choice between the dumb ones or the KaiOS ones that can get them access to the internet. That would be almost a no-brainer.
Of the options currently on the market, only KaiOS represents a real opportunity to get more Zimbabweans access to the human right that is the internet. The KaiOS device prices are close enough to the feature phone prices Zimbabweans can somewhat afford. And future prices look set to fall so we can really get excited.
After discussing all this, one wonders how Mthuli Ncube’s $50 levy on smartphones will affect things. It would not make sense to smuggle these phones in but to bite the bullet and give the govt its 40% cut, thereby inflating the prices of the devices. Seeing as how consumers are price sensitive, the 40% tax serves to push the devices beyond the reach of many who would have been keen.
Here’s a half-thought on a route we could take, which won’t be popular with some. How about we use the Universal Service Fund (USF) to provide devices for rural, or even all households in the country. There are about 2.3 million rural households in the country and let’s work with the $17 KaiOS device, that makes it US$39.1 million to do this.
The USF is meant to improve the internet access problem for marginalized households. So, what better way than to provide them with devices too. Yes, I know, this ‘solution’ would have its problems but it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Anyways, this is my thinking around KaiOS and that’s how I ended up purchasing the Smart Kambudzi on sale by Econet. There is lots to discuss about that phone and discuss, we shall.