Mara Phone, a smartphone by the pan-African conglomerate Mara Group, has opened its first factory in Rwanda as the company hopes to pioneer a brand of African-made smartphones.
Located in Kigali’s special economic zone, the factory employees over 200 people to manufacture high-tech smartphones for the local market and further afield.
With two models on sale for $159 and $229, the Android phones are hoping to compete with Asian manufacturers like Tecno and Samsung who currently dominate Africa’s markets.
Speaking at the launch, CEO Ashish Thakkar, said: “We realised a few years ago that to create positive social impact on our continent and in emerging markets we need to have high quality and affordable smartphones. That’s when we came up with Mara Phones.”
Smartphone penetration in Rwanda currently stands at around 15% with the most basic Tecno and Samsung models sold at $40 and $70 respectively.
The bulk of the market is characterised by feature phones which use USSD technology to access digital services; a general trend across the continent
At a considerably higher price, critics are skeptical the Mara Phone will make a dent in the local market.
Yet thanks to partnerships with local banks and telecommunications firms, the Mara Group have created a finance model which allows users to pay for their phones over a period of two years.
Opening the ceremony, Rwandan President Paul Kagame commended the drive towards affordable smartphones and underlined the need to boost the adoption of high-tech products in his country.
“The smartphone is no longer a luxury item, it is rapidly becoming a requirement of everyday life,” he said.
“That trend is bound to increase in the years to come as more and more services migrate to digital platforms. We want to enable many more Rwandans to use smartphones. The cost and quality is very important and the introduction of Mara Phones will put smartphone ownership within reach of more Rwandans.”
The Mara Group has a long history in Rwanda thanks to its 20% stake in the pan-African banking group Atlas Mara, which was co-founded in 2013 by Thakkar and the former CEO of Barclays Bob Diamond.
In 2015, the group acquired a majority share in the Banque Populaire du Rwanda.
Atlas Mara is now scaling back its pan-African ambitions through a share swap with the rapidly expanding Kenyan lender, Equity Bank.
The Nairobi-based commercial bank acquired 100% of Atlas Mara’s operations in Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania along with 62% of the Banque Populaire du Rwanda.
Thakkar described his new factory as “historic” due to its position as the first smartphone manufacturing plant on the continent.
“In Africa, we don’t manufacture anything,” said Thakkar.
“We assemble in a few countries, but we don’t manufacture anything. We are the consumers but not the producers. When we first told people about Mara Phone they told us we were crazy and that it wasn’t possible. Our true belief in Africa, particularly Rwanda, is a dream come true. This is a historic moment which will help shift the narrative for Rwanda, Africa and the rest of the world.”
The Mara Group are set to launch their next Mara Phone factory in South Africa on the 17th of October.