KaiOS shows why it is critical to Africa’s digital ambition

Working in tandem with Vodacom, KaiOS has brought another smart-feature phone to the market, this time in Tanzania for the remarkable price of $20.

With an install base of 80 million already, the alternative operating system is proving to be a very viable and attractive alternative for the development markets. The latest push forward is in Tanzania, with the $20 Smart Kitochi connected-feature phone, which has sold out already. Vodacom said 5,000 devices were sold in the first four days, while the team is waiting for another shipment to land next week.

The device is built on the MediaTek chipset and powered by the KaiOS operating system, enabling 3G and 4G connectivity, access to a new KaiOS app store and many slimmed-down features which we take as commonplace today.

The emergence of KaiOS, and the enthusiasm of the telcos to embrace a new dynamic, is helping the team tackle a major hurdle for shrinking the digital divide in Africa; affordability of internet connected devices.

When you consider the monthly take home salary of an individual in Africa could be as little as $100, the internet becomes an unachievable dream. Who can spare money to invest in a smartphone when you have to pay the rent and feed your family? This is where KaiOS fits into the equation; it has driven the creation of an ecosystem to manufacture feature phones with 3G and 4G connectivity features. It is a compromise. A no-frills device which allows some of the world’s poorest individuals to benefit from the digital economy.

What is worth noting is this is not a direct threat to the dominance of Android in the operating system segment. KaiOS should be seen as complementary to Google’s efforts.

Firstly, what is always worth bearing in mind is that Google is a KaiOS investor. It was one of the four companies which funnelled cash into the business to drive development in the early years.

Secondly, Google services will continue to run on KaiOS devices. The team has no intention to create alternative products in-house, such as mapping or messaging features. Although it is a different operating system, the more successful KaiOS is, the more exposure Google products get.

Finally, the monetization model at KaiOS is completely different to Android. Whereas the Google team drive revenues by placing products as default applications on Android devices, KaiOS generates cash through revenue sharing models and commission earned through in-app purchases.

Like Android, KaiOS is free of license fees for the telcos, an important aspect of the model. As soon as licensing fees are introduced, there is a risk of telcos charging more for the devices, which will lead to a smaller install base for KaiOS. Charging licensing fees would undermine the very concept of the business.

Google has once again invested very intelligently. To drive future revenues, Google needs to gain exposure to more individuals. Unfortunately, Android is a smartphone OS and not entirely applicable to the developing markets. It could be re-imagined, but then again it might be much more efficient to simply invest in a company which can specifically build an OS for smart feature phones. The slimmed down version of Android looks to be living on limited time and it would not be surprising to see the OS culled.

With more and more affordable devices flooding onto the market, more people are taking into the digital economy. If KaiOS continues to grow its user base, Google’s products such as Maps and YouTube, which are installed as default on the devices, are used by more people. By investing in KaiOS, Google has gained an extra 80 million customers, and these are still the early days.

KaiOS has already launched in several markets, though India is the most successful to date. In partnership with Reliance Jio, the Jio phone has proven to be very popular allowing KaiOS to surpass Apple iOS as the second most common OS in the market. There will be launches in the near future, but this all depends on the appetite of the telcos.

KaiOS highlighted during a press conference that it is the telcos who decide future launches, as they have the retail presence to push the smart-feature devices out to the market. Although handing over control to a third-party is not the most comfortable position to be in, there is drive from the telcos.

If the telcos are going to secure additional revenues, they will need more people to be connected. Device affordability is one of the biggest challenges to connect the unconnected, so expect to see some aggressive moves forward with new device launches. Vodacom is a very good partner for KaiOS, with the telco maintaining a presence in 32 African nations.

Connecting the unconnected is still a monumental challenge in African, though the creation and aggressive deployment of new ideas is generating momentum. Underpinning all of this success is the emergence of affordable, internet-connected devices, and an operating system which is perfectly designed for the unique connectivity landscape in Africa. KaiOS has a very bright future and the importance of this business should never be undervalued.

HMD releases new Nokia-branded feature phones

HMD Global, the Finnish phone maker and licensee of the Nokia brand, has unveiled two feature phones for 2G and 4G connectivity to serve basic communication.

The Finnish company is one of the few that still believe there is a profitable business in the feature phone market. It release two models today, the Nokia 220 for 4G (pictured) and the new version of Nokia 105 for 2G.

“We know that our fans across the globe have diverse needs, so it is important to us that we ensure we cater to them in the way they expect. The Nokia 220 4G and Nokia 105 bring 4G and 2G connectivity at an incredible value,” said Juho Sarvikas, Chief Product Officer of HMD Global. “In addition, both Nokia 220 4G and Nokia 105 live up to the core values of reliability and simplicity that have come to be associated with a Nokia feature phone.”

The key selling points of the 4G Nokia 220 include HD voice call over LTE, mobile internet, and dual-SIM option. The battery standby time is said to last up to 27 days on the single-SIM version, and 17 days on the dual-SIM. Its spec sheet also claims that users can use Facebook though it is not clear whether it is through a full-version of the Facebook platform, a stripped down version of the app (e.g. Facebook Zero, which would need operator support), or a link to the mobile web.

The 2G Nokia 105’s key selling point is the battery life. Both phones also come with FM radio, the difference being the Nokia 220 does not need to use the headset to be plugged in as the antenna. Both phones will be available from August. The Nokia 220 starts from €39, and the Nokia 105 will start at 13 Euros.

According to the feature phone software and operating system company KaiOS, which is another active player in the feature phone market, about half a billion pieces of feature phones are sold each year and the market has been stable. Although the key markets are in emerging markets like Africa, India, there is also a stable segment in places like North America.

KaiOS’s software serves the so-called “smart feature phone” segment, which can support, among other things, web apps. The company announced that it platform has just received the official version of WhatsApp. It may be worth highlighting that HMD is also a KaiOS OEM, with the Linux-based operating system powering the new Nokia 8110, which also received the official WhatsApp. The company’s vision looks also to be shared by its operator partners. Orange has recently joined the “Series B” funding round therefore become a KaiOS investor.

KaiOS gains Orange support in African drive

Orange has come out in support of KaiOS Technologies, as the telco contributed to the $50 million raised in total during its Series B funding round led by Cathay Innovation.

The cash itself will be used to fuel expansion of the feature phone operating system into new markets, introducing new features and further expanding the KaiOS developer community. To date, there are currently more than 100 million devices running on KaiOS, with a footprint in 100 countries.

“Our mission is to open up new possibilities for individuals, organizations, and society by bringing mobile connectivity to the billions of people without internet in emerging markets, as well as providing those in established markets with an alternative to smartphones,” said Sebastien Codeville, CEO of KaiOS Technologies.

Aside from fuelling an alternative to Google’s Android OS, the partnership between is also geared towards improving accessibility from a device perspective.

“Today the two main barriers to internet access are the lack of infrastructure, for which Orange is investing one billion euros per year, and the cost of the device,” said Alioune Ndiaye, CEO Orange Middle East & Africa.

“As part of our effort to overcome this second barrier, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to develop our partnership with Kai through a direct investment. Providing our customers with access to affordable devices is a crucial step in our ambition to democratise access to the Internet in Africa.”

During Mobile World Congress this year, Kai and Orange launched Sanza, a smart feature phone which incorporated voice-recognition, extended battery life and popular apps as the main features. However, most importantly, the device is sold for as little as $20.

As Ndiaye points out above, accessibility in terms of infrastructure and devices is an issue across the African continent fuelling the ever-expanding digital divide. Africa is a profitable region for Orange, but to grow these profits the telco will have to ensure the internet is accessible to the millions of people who aren’t surfing the digital highways today.