Close this search box.

Marketing to Africa’s low-connectivity feature phone users

Key to Africa’s IT story is the mobile phone, a device that has connected millions to the internet who would otherwise have had no access to it.

Key to Africa’s IT story is the mobile phone, a device that has connected millions to the internet who would otherwise have had no access to it. Apart from all the other advantages it offers – like connecting with distant family and friends, mobile payments, healthcare support schemes, and more – this phenomenon has opened up a lucrative new avenue for businesses and marketers, who now have access to an enormous and largely untapped market.

That said, most of the literature out there on how to market your brand or organisation via mobile does however assume a consumer working with a first-rate, uninterrupted internet connection and a mobile device possessing both generous storage space and strong processing power, a two-pronged situation which anyone living in Africa knows is seldom the case.

In many African nations the national power grid is outdated, inadequate and strained, making power outages common (and moreover many remote and rural areas are not even connected to the grid). In addition to this, Africa’s mobile phone users predominantly own low-end feature phones; smartphones account for less than 20% of phones in Africa and are primarily the domain of wealthier, urban Africans.

So what should marketers wishing to target Africa’s vast and nascent feature phone-owning consumer group be doing? Great question.

When in Rome (or Rwanda)…

When in Rome, not only do as the Romans do, but market to them according to the realities of the Eternal City, from their use of scooters to their crowded streets, mobile phone rental companies, and brand awareness.

When in Africa, the same applies, and perhaps even more, given Africa’s unique development path (for instance, Africa by and large skipped fixed line connections in favour of leapfrogging straight to mobile telephony). Offline and online marketers need to tailor their campaigns to the unique realities of the continent and the country or countries in which they’re operating.

Case study: Carling Black Label’s ‘Be the Coach’ campaign

In 2011 Carling Black Label launched its Be the Coach campaign in South Africa in support of the Carling Black Label Cup, a soccer match to be fought between the Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. The marketing team made use of USSD, a mobile technology developed in South Africa for android phone users, which allows text messages to be sent back and forth between android phones and the service provider’s computers.

Campaign participants used their mobile phones to act as ‘coaches’, voting on team selections, sharing their selections, debating with one another about their choices, expressing support for their favourite players and team, and more. The site operated in real time, providing immediate feedback and updates, and so engendered a sense of involvement in the game.

Since the bulk of the Cup’s supporters possessed low-end android phones, the mobisite’s USSD format made the campaign widely accessible and, consequently, as time would show, a huge (marketing) success.

The role of support industries

While android-specific marketing campaigns are key, let’s not leave it there. Support and related industries such as IT and social media also need to create the platforms that will facilitate marketers in their efforts.

A good example of this is Facebook. The social media mega weight recently developed Facebook Lite, an adaptation of the original platform that performs well on android phones with limited space and connectivity. It was created with emerging markets in Africa and Asia foremost in mind. The Lite app only requires 252KB of space compared with the 25MB of the classic android app and it can be run on android 2.2 devices and up.

With Facebook an incredibly potent advertising tool for brands and companies of all sizes, the potential knock-on effect of making it more accessible is huge.

This is the sort of context-specific thinking and developments of which there needs to be more in order to accelerate the opening up of the African market and make the most of present opportunities.


Champion your company’s digital ascent.

With over a decade of transforming companies, we help you confidently embrace the digital economy.

Learn more about digital