Low cost mobile devices to connect Africa

By Luyolo Mkentane Time of article published Mar 25, 2018

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JOHANNESBURG -  South Africa’s  leading technology company Mint Connect is planning to expand its footprint across Africa to meet the demand for its premium, low cost mobile devices proving popular with the unconnected masses.

At the centre of this technological revolution is chief executive, Sagran Pillay, who has laid bare the company’s plans to “penetrate” the multi-billion rand African telecommunications industry.

He explains during a wide ranging interview with Business Report at his company offices in Boksburg, east of Johannesburg, that they’ve sold over 7.5 million smartphones and feature phones in Southern Africa, making them the largest supplier of the gadgets into this lucrative regional economy.

Sagran Pillay is CEO of technology company Mint Connect. Image: Supplied.
In fact, they supply about 400,000 mobile devices a quarter into the South African marketplace that “consumes” 22m cellphones per annum.

Mint Connect is owned by shareholders Pillay, former SA Revenue Service commissioner Oupa Magashule, and entrepreneur Rob Bruggeman.

They took over mobile brand Alcatel’s Boksburg factory when the company disinvested in South Africa in 2002.

Pillay, who describes himself and his two colleagues as telecommunications engineers, admits the transaction was a “well-structured deal” and that none of the 300 employees have lost their jobs ever since their takeover. 

As the “three musketeers” were plotting ways to diversify their business in 2010, they discovered that only the affluent people were being catered for with cellphones, while a huge population remained negated from technology.

“We wanted to make technology accessible to people in the LSM 3-7 groups by bringing affordable mobile devices into the market. In 2014/2015 we introduced the Mint F1 cellphone through MTN which sold for R99,” says Pillay, who holds an MBA from the Wits Business School.

“We sold over 2m devices in three months. It remained the best selling phone for several months.”

They then started casting their nets a bit wide and looking at affordable smartphones. In 2015/2016 the company launched the Mint Fox smartphone which sold for R399 and over 1.2m devices were sold in the marketplace.

Pillays says they are working with retailers such as Pep Stores, Game and Edcon, among others, who sell the devices to their markets in Africa.

The company has recently inked a deal with Botswana’s Cellular City which has exclusive distribution rights to the Mint Connect brand in the landlocked country.

“We are slowly moving our footprint into Africa,” says Pillay.

He says at 150 percent, cellphone penetration is up to a maximum in South Africa, hence they are looking at expanding their footprint across the continent.

According to a study by mobile research group GSMA Intelligence, South Africa is the second biggest mobile market in Africa after Nigeria, but has a far higher mobile penetration rate that the west African nation.

The study projects that the number of unique mobile subscribers in Sub-Saharan Africa will grow from 420m at the end of 2016 to 535m in 2020, making it the fastest growing region in the world over this period.

It says mobile technologies and services generated $110 billion of economic value in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2016, which is equivalent to 7.7 percent of regional GDP, and this figure was expected to surge to $142 billion (8.6 percent of GDP) by 2020.

“We are looking at countries with a high growth rate and slow cellphone penetration, we are looking for stable markets,” says Pillay, who was born in Cato Manor in Chartsworth, Durban.

He also weighs in on the #DataMustFall campaign, saying government was “pretty slow” in digitising the country, noting that this has a ripple effect on the economy.

“The longer government takes in finalising this issue, the more expensive data will stay,” says Pillay, from the company boardroom whose walls are adorned with the portraits and quotes from revolutionaries Che Guevara, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

He argues that if everyone could have access to internet, South Africa’s GDP could grow by 2 percent per year. The country has 21m internet users, the vast majority of which are using mobile, according to Internet Access in South Africa 2017 study by World Wide Worx.

Sagran Pillay is CEO of technology company Mint Connect. Image: Supplied.
Pillay says the vision for them is to diversify the company and branch into software development in the next two years. Besides providing mobile devices, Mint Connect’s holding company, CZ Electronics, also manufactures DStv decoders and TV sets.

“The only way to address the unemployment issue in this country is through large scale manufacturing. We’ve had huge successes in automobile manufacturing in this country,” he says.

“Our belief is why can’t we do the same in the electronics and clothing spaces, these are high volume industries.”

Pillay is unfazed about competition, saying it keeps them on their toes to stay at the forefront of the technological revolution.

And as the saying goes - when you’re at the top the only competition is yourself.


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