Locals take on China's invasion of Africa's biggest economy: 'They're like Goliath, we're David'
A building painted in AfriOne’s brand colors in the Computer Village market, Lagos, Nigeria. The market, which occupies a ramshackle-looking gated neighborhood near Lagos’s international airport, is the center of the country’s consumer electronics trade. (Photo: Armin Rosen for Yahoo News)
LAGOS, Nigeria — At Lagos’s Computer Village, buyers, sellers, wholesalers, hawkers and opportunists jostle for a piece of a booming industry. On a recent Wednesday tall stacks of shrink-wrapped printers and copying machines sat along muddy gravel streets. Peddlers hawked batteries, keychain USB drives and every conceivable model of mobile phone out of cardboard boxes.
Bigger deals went down in the jumble of buildings overlooking the chaos. In air-conditioned showrooms, bright rows of competing company-branded displays, attended by beaming salespeople in company-branded polo shirts, tried to entice bulk purchasers of the most important gadget in the country: smartphones.
Computer Village stands at the head of the cellphone supply chain for a country that has more than 180 million people and the largest economy in Africa, with a 2016 GDP of $405 billion.
“Brand acceptance can be created from this market,” said Rajesh Ramakrishnan, the representative of the Lagos-based AfriOne, which makes mobile devices among other products. Implausibly, he described the chaotic scene as being subdued by Computer Village standards. As we fought through the crowded streets, salespeople in AfriOne polos would dizzyingly emerge from the throng to talk to him, and then vanish just as quickly. He calmly defused a confrontation with a group from one of the merchant associations who tried to stop me from using my camera. “It’s a very comfortable place,” he said, also implausibly. “But be careful.”
AfriOne is the first company to assemble smartphones in Nigeria. It’s new to Computer Village, and only began selling its two models of Android-based devices, priced at around $75, earlier in the summer. Companies that want to be visible in the market’s maelstrom of activity often buy building façades and paint them in their corporate colors, and Ramakrishnan pointed out the boxy concrete cantilevers of a building coated in AfriOne forest green and capped with the company’s logo.
An AfriOne billboard sits above a gate to Computer Village in Lagos, competing with a Tecno-branded building façade across the street. (Photo: Armin Rosen for Yahoo News)
But half the neighborhood was covered with the distinctive powder blue of Hong Kong and Shanghai-based Tecno. That was also the color of the market’s solar-powered street lamps, which the phone producer had donated. Tecno’s story is a model for how Chinese companies have leveraged inexpensive manufacturing and clever marketing to dominate lucrative markets around the world, in Africa especially. The success or failure of upstart local challengers like AfriOne will help determine how long that dominance can continue.
Tecno’s parent company owns 3C Hub, one of the market’s busiest outlets. AfriOne doesn’t have a display there: In order to set up at 3C Hub, “we would have to disclose our marketing plan, and it’s easy for a brand like Tecno to kill us,” Ramakrishnan explained. He’s sure it’ll just be a matter of time before AfriOne is big enough to be invited to the outlet with no questions asked. “Let the demand come. Then they will bring us here. In the next six months, it will happen,” Ramakrishnan promised.
Tecno的母公司拥有3C Hub，这是该市场最繁忙的经销店之一，但AfriOne没能在那里展览:为了我们能在3C Hub展览，“我们必须披露我们的营销计划，而像Tecno这样的品牌很容易杀死我们，”Ramakrishnan解释道。他确信，AfriOne的规模足够大，有资格被邀请到这个经销店，没有任何问题，除了时间问题。“满足人们需求。然后他们会把我们带到那里去的。在接下来的六个月里，这种事将会发生，”Ramakrishnan承诺。
AfriOne’s made-in-Nigeria smartphone will either turn out to be a novelty or a farsighted gambit. Today, an estimated 30 percent of Nigerians have internet-capable phones. The market is large, but just a fraction of what it could be. “There will be such a massive population explosion, and the curve to reach eventual mass market is so far out there,” says Lekan Akinjide, AfriOne’s director of strategy and government coordination, who noted that Nigeria’s population of around 186 million is projected to grow to as much as 400 million by midcentury.