This is the story of a small African smartphone maker who already sees himself in the court of the big names in the mobile industry. At the head of Mi-Fone, a charismatic entrepreneur, Alpesh Patel.
Born in Uganda, Alpesh Patel and his family were brutally expelled from it during his childhood, in 1972, by the dictator of the time, Idi Amin Dada, because of their Indian origins. If this injustice deeply marks him, Alpesh will never cut ties with his continent of birth and heart. Several years later, he made his comeback on African soil, in Kenya, through entrepreneurship and new technologies, with his low-cost Mi-Fone smartphone project, sold from 12 dollars and whose sales today are exploding.
To date, more than 3 million Mi-Fones have already been sold in Africa. “The Mi-Fone is the African phone, it distributes African content and costs less than $ 100 for performance comparable to competing models from California or Asia. In Dakar, Nairobi or Lagos, who can buy a $ 600 smartphone to make phone calls? “
Met in Marrakech, Morocco, on the occasion of the annual meeting of the African Leadership Network of which he is one of the members, Alpesh Patel gives us in an interview his secrets for entrepreneurship in Africa, with some good advice to the key. Words gathered by Samir Abdelkrim, entrepreneur, founder of StartupBRICS.com * and expert for Les Echos.
Why did you decide to launch an African smartphone, the Mi-Fone?
Alpesh Patel: Our headquarters are in Nairobi, Kenya and we launched the Mi-Fone in the middle of the economic crisis in 2008. Quite sincerely everyone thought I was crazy. Above all, from the 2000s, many entrepreneurs and investors in Africa and elsewhere doubted our ability to resist in the face of road rollers such as Apple, Samsung, Nokia, etc. But now, I was the director of Motorola Africa, and I know well the tastes of Africans in terms of mobile technologies. So I knew you had to create a smartphone that aligned with their needs. The big international brands do not know enough about the needs of African consumers. Yes certainly, everyone aspires to have an iPhone, but given its price, who can afford it in Africa? The Mi-Fone is a phone within reach of all Africans, and in particular of its youth, our main target. Besides the very low price, we have managed to create an emotional attachment between Mi-Fone and African music, African fashion, African entertainment. We have managed to create a “lifestyle” around our brand. For hipsters in Accra or Nairobi by, the Mi-Fone is associated with the imagination of the African night and the party. That’s what it means to understand and listen to your market.
Competition is tough in your industry. How much do you make to generate income?
Alpesh Patel: The very first day I launched the Mi-Fone, I had my first order from Ghana, so we were able to monetize from the start. Monetization was our obsession morning, noon and evening, because we operated on equity – we only had $ 100,000 at start-up – and at the end of each end of the month we had to settle the invoices, pay the suppliers, pay the salaries of collaborators, etc. We had to constantly sell smartphones to survive and it was this survival instinct that was our main driver. And then we had to hurry to occupy the ground when we know the financial strength of competitors like Samsung, and what they can spend on marketing campaigns to flood the market. Our strategy was therefore to deploy across the continent as quickly as possible. And to innovate, constantly. We do not have the marketing budgets of our Asian competitors which amount to millions of dollars, but we can innovate, be creative, find the right viral marketing methods to attract, attract, retain customers and make them our first ambassadors. So we targeted 12 African markets at the same time, which was made easier by my knowledge of African consumer tastes.
How many smartphones have you sold since the start of your entrepreneurial adventure?
Alpesh Patel: Between 2008 and today we have sold more than 3 million Mi-Fone models in Africa, this is not an insane number but for a company launched on equity, in “bootstrap” mode, this n is not so bad! These sales have not allowed us to generate $ 30 million in revenue, but we want to go much further in conquering the African middle classes. This is why we decided to open our capital to investors, to have the means of our ambitions, to accelerate our expansion.
Was fundraising difficult for you?
Alpesh Patel: Honestly, it was very difficult to raise funds. I personally contacted over 100 people in Africa, Europe, the United States and knocked on many doors, all of which were closed under the pretext that we could not seriously compete with Apple or Samsung! We had the chance to meet investors in South Africa who listened to us, analyzed our metrics, and told us: let’s go! We have raised several million dollars to become the number one smartphone in Africa in less than five years, our goal now is to go even faster. We have already done the most difficult work which is evangelization and education of the market, we now want to strengthen our distribution channels and accelerate recruitment. There are 54 countries in Africa, there is still a lot of work to do and even in the markets where we are present, we are not yet powerful enough. So we have to constantly improve what we do.
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Are your smartphones produced in Africa?
Alpesh Patel: They are designed and designated in Africa but produced in China. China has a quality infrastructure and ecosystem that enables them to produce smartphones and all kinds of connected objects for the whole world, with increasing quality. We could ideally produce our products in Africa but honestly we need more support from governments, that they invest in Research and Development and develop infrastructure. However, we favor the creation of local African content, for example we work with African designers and studios who create our emoticons. African musicians can also integrate their content into our phones.
What advice would you give to young Africans who want to do business?
Alpesh Patel: I’ll be honest, entrepreneurship is a long journey, sometimes terrifying! 20 years ago everyone wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, 10 years ago everyone wanted to be a trader or banker, today everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. The problem is, as an entrepreneur you can only rely on yourself, you no longer have guaranteed income. The psychological bill is important. My advice to a young African entrepreneur: find the right partners from the start, and share, put your ego aside. I would rather have 10% of a start-up worth $ 100 million than 100% of a start-up worth $ 1 million. Then find a problem and solve it! It can be in health, transport, logistics, agriculture. This is what investors are going to ask you: what problem are you solving with your start-up? Finally, you have to have a global vision – because narrow visions are not compatible with entrepreneurship – and follow it up with actions. Execution is very important, you should not rely on anyone other than yourself and your team. If you think you have the right product, have tested it, and feel like you are solving a problem that really matters, then focus on that product, and don’t go too far.
Learn more at http://business.lesechos.fr/entrepreneurs/success-stories/mi-fone-le-smartphone-africain-qui-veut-detroner-samsung-et-apple-204603.php?hMECtoVEWkELcQir.99