Township-created smart feature phone enters fray

The phone that is set to enter the market.

The phone that is set to enter the market.

Published Mar 7, 2023


Johannesburg - With the emergence of digital technology, South Africa and the rest of the continent have been experiencing several social and economic shifts.

Emerging connectivity technologies are assisting South Africa in addressing its socio-economic challenges, and its economic revival and rapid technological change go hand in hand.

The emergence of young entrepreneurs creating technologies that are specifically modified for the African market has been transformative. Seeing the digital divide, entrepreneur Lebogang Mokubela, 32, founder and CEO of Lemok Electronics, established a South African technology company that designs, manufactures and distributes innovative mobile devices with a focus on smart feature phones.

Their flagship product is the Lehumo smart feature phone, which offers a range of features typically found on high-end smartphones, like access to apps, email, internet browsing and voice assistants, while being affordable.

“What is then called the ‘lepopotane’ in some northern townships of South Africa,” he said. In terms of range, the company provides a few options for after-sales support, including customer service, software updates and repairs through their partner network.

Entrepreneur Lebogang Mokubela

Mokubela’s journey started in 2009 when he started his first business after matriculating. “It was an events business which was born as a result of trying to help my church raise funds to get young people of Soshanguve to youth camp,” he said.

The business collapsed in 2011 because he lacked basic business acumen, which meant that he spent the company’s money as his own, and as a result the business’s cash flow was drastically affected.

“And as a result of cash flow deficits, I could not take advantage of new opportunities within the events space,” Mokubela explained.

However, through the events business, he met a marketing team that had headed 8.ta (now Telkom Mobile). The marketing team introduced him to their brand activations and marketing agency.

“That is how I then landed a job at Perx Agency as a junior creative,’’ he said. In 2013 under the mentorship of the Perx Agency CEO, he was promoted to director of strategy.

Mokubela’s main accounts were Lenovo SA and Telkom. This was when he was exposed to the electronics and telecommunications industries. In 2014, Mokubela resigned from the agency to launch the Lemok Group.

“The first division, Lemok Agency, was launched as a digital-first and township-based marketing agency,” Mokubela said. The agency with its headquarters in a township began working with shopping centre developers, particularly those who targeted rural and township areas.

In 2017, after Black Friday, Lemok Electronics was born. Mokubela said “a shopping centre client had asked my team and me to be on-site at midnight as Game was opening at that time”.

He was fascinated with the hordes of people who came out at those hours. He wanted to see what they were purchasing and to his surprise, the majority of purchases were electronics and gadgets, more specifically TVs and phones.

This is when Mokubela noticed that there were no African technological brands that were available. “That night, I could not sleep. Between research and sketching out plans, I kept on asking myself Why?! Why aren’t there African brands building products for African challenges?” he explained.

The entrepreneur worked on Lemok Electronics’ first entry-level smartphone, the S8, between 2017 and 2019. The device was then launched on December 18, 2019.

“However, lockdown and covid-19 happened and completely destroyed our entire business. Even the factory we had partnered with went bust,” Mokubela said.

For the past three years the company has been working on building sustainability within the business operations while also looking into the new market segment. “This was the birth of our soon-to-be-launched Lehumo 4G smart feature phone,” he said.

With the launch of the Lehumo smart feature phone, customers can anticipate 4G capability, which is particularly important because African countries are phasing out 2G and 3G networks.

Customers can also look forward to social media sites such as WhatsApp and Facebook, Google Assistant, a front-facing camera and a long-lasting battery.

Mokubela said they have also bumped up the RAM from the standard 256MB to 1GB.

“Our device is designed to cater to the needs of those transitioning from feature phones (first-time smartphone users) as well as those looking for an affordable alternative to high-end smartphones,” he explained.

With the design of the phone, the company prioritised form and comfort. Their design team focused on creating a sleek and modern look that would appeal to the company’s target market.

“We also conducted extensive user research to ensure that the phone’s interface and user experience were intuitive and user-friendly,” he said.

Their goal was to create a device that did not intimidate those transitioning from feature phones while looking great and providing an exceptional user experience. They believe the Lehumo phone accomplishes both of those objectives.

What makes Lehumo different is that it is not a smartphone but a smart feature phone. Mokubela explained that a smart feature phone is a mobile device that incorporates features of both a smartphone and a feature phone.

It provides advanced functionalities such as internet connectivity, access to mobile apps and a modern user interface while maintaining the simplicity, affordability and durability of a feature phone. Smart feature phones are often targeted at emerging markets and budget-conscious consumers who seek a balance between functionality and affordability.

“With that said, our smart feature phone stands out in several ways. It is specifically designed to cater to the needs of African consumers, with a focus on affordability and functionality,” he said.

Lehumo is also designed to be easy to use, with a user-friendly interface and simple navigation. They prioritised features that are important to their target audience, such as long battery life, dual-SIM capability, access to social media and a high-quality camera.

Covid and lockdown were the biggest challenges because the lockdown happened six months after them launching their first phone.

“Covid made it very difficult to compete with established incumbents as there was a shortage of chipsets, screens, etc. which the bigger players bought up because of their buying power,” Mokubela said.

The second challenge the company has faced is access to funding, which is still one of its biggest headaches. “Although we have tried to self-fund as much as we can, to effectively take on the market, we need financial backing,” Mokubela explained.

The last time they tried raising funds with the government, the company was declined because they did not manufacture their phones in South Africa. This time around, the company has partnered with a local contract manufacturer to ensure the local content is taken care of.

They hope the government comes to the party this time. They are currently in talks with a national retailer in South Africa where the phone will hopefully be sold. Alternatively, the phones will be available online for door-to-door delivery.

“For the Kenyan market, we will be partnering with an asset financing platform that provides under-banked customers in Africa with essential products including solar lighting, televisions, fridges, smartphones and financial services,” Mokubela said.

“Lemok Electronics is 100% owned by my wife and me through our family trust,” he said. Mokubela said it was important for the company to be predominantly black-owned as part of its mission is to drive economic transformation and to empower previously disadvantaged individuals in South Africa.

“This is important because it promotes equality, diversity and inclusivity in the tech industry, which historically has been dominated by a few large players. By being predominantly black-owned, we can create opportunities for other black entrepreneurs and provide role models for young black people who aspire to enter the tech industry,” Mokubela said.

They believe that empowering previously disadvantaged communities and promoting diversity can create a stronger, more innovative and more resilient tech industry.