How did this Chinese phone maker rise to dominate Africa?

Shenzhen-based Transsion faces challenges on many fronts as it safeguards its foothold in the African continent.

Photo: Shutterstock

Zhu Zhaojiang joined Ningbo Bird, a then well-known Chinese smartphone brand, fresh out of university in 1996. He was in charge of selling pagers.

When he rose through the ranks to become the deputy general manager in 2003, the heyday of Ningbo Bird, he suggested that the company expand its business overseas. This was what brought him to more than 90 markets, according to Chinese media reports, paving the way for the start of Transsion, a little-known phone brand in China even though it has now taken Africa by storm.

It was in 2006 that he felt Ningbo Bird had hit a growth ceiling in China, a sign for him to move on. This brought about the birth of Transsion in Hong Kong.

Twelve years later, Transsion is now the world’s fourth-largest phone maker. It shipped a total of 124 million handsets in 2018, according to data tracker IDC, and over 70% of them were feature phones–basic phones that make calls, send texts, and have minimal internet connectivity. Transsion trailed only Samsung, Apple, and fellow homegrown rival Huawei in total shipments last year, according to IDC.

Another milestone was achieved on September 30, when Transsion traded on the Star Market, China’s answer to the Nasdaq. Its shares closed up 64% on the debut day, valuing it at RMB 46.2 billion (USD 6.48 billion). Zhu, 45, is now worth more than RMB 6 billion given his stake of nearly 14% in the handset maker.

The Shenzhen-based company wants to use the RMB 4.6 billion raised from the IPO to build production factories and research and development (R&D) centers in Chongqing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, to cope with its expansion.

Zooming in on Africa

Dubbed the “Cellphone King in Africa”,Transsion has established an ecosystem in the continent that covers everything from hardware to software, as well as after-sales service. It has cellphone brands Tecno, Itel and Infinix, digital accessories line Oraimo, electronics and appliances brand Syinix, and after-sales service company Carlcare.

It has also developed various mobile operating systems and apps that cater to the tastes of African people.  Take Boom player, for instance. It is now the continent’s largest music-streaming platform with over 300,000 smash hits from 4,200 African artistes.

“In the past, Samsung and Nokia were the mainstream brands in Africa, but their phone specifications were standardized across all markets,” said industry watcher Yan Qi in an article on 36Kr. “But Transsion defied that by rolling out products that have addressed Africans’ pain points, improved their user experience, and with features that distinguish them from the rest.”

Transsion is well-known for a slew of phones tailored to African needs–they use nighttime photography settings designed for darker skin tones, and some have multiple SIM card slots for users to toggle between wireless networks to save money.

Other novelties include heat protection for electronics and cellphones that have a large battery capacity. In Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia, for example, the power supply can be unreliable, leaving people unable to charge their phones for hours, according to CNN.

Price is another selling point. Transsion sold feature phones for an average of RMB 66 last year, while its smartphones carried a price tag of RMB 454, according to its IPO prospectus.

Such strategies won over African consumers. Transsion commanded nearly 50% share of handsets (smartphones and feature phones) shipped to the continent last year, IDC data shows. Samsung was No. 2 at a distant 10%, while HMD Global (which owns Nokia) was third at 7%.

The meteoric rise of Transsion has caught the attention of venture capitalists. It now counts Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC, China’s second-largest gaming company NetEase, as well as Hongtai Fund and Maison Capital, among its backers.

“Transsion discovered the potential of Africa at a very early stage and has since invested a lot of efforts in the market. This long-term commitment and aggregated know-how is hard to surpass by other brands,” Cui Wenli, a founding partner of Maison Capital, was quoted as saying by local media Private Equity Daily.

Rising threats

It faces challenges, however. Transsion said in its prospectus that other vendors, such as India’s Lyf, are also selling low-priced devices in the market, while Chinese rivals Huawei and Xiaomi have ratcheted up their efforts in Africa, where smartphone adoption rate is only 34% and is expected to grow to 67% by 2025.

Lack of patents is another issue. On the eve of Transsion’s much-hyped float, it said it received a lawsuit notice from Huawei over an alleged intellectual property infringement that demanded RMB 20 million in compensation.

Huawei alleged that it owns the copyright of a wallpaper design preinstalled on Transsion devices and that Transsion has also used the design in its product release events, web page displays and advertisements. In a filing to the stock exchange, Transsion only said sales of six models of its handsets could be impacted.

The “Cellphone King in Africa” is nonetheless taking the challenges in its stride.

It has responded to the competition by moving into new territories, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and Southeast Asia. While its prospectus said it has a foothold in more than 70 markets, Africa still accounted for the bulk, or about 80%, of Transsion’s total annual revenue. Analysts said Transsion has to speed up its diversification move.

“Transsion isn’t particularly well-known for its strength in R&D, and hence it’s been focusing on markets which require lower thresholds of technological advantages,” media outlet Data-viz.cn commented in a report on 36Kr. “How to improve its technological capability and fend off offensive from other rivals should be its next step.”

However Cui Wenli, managing partner of Maison Capital, one of Transsion’s backers, still has high hopes on Transsion.

“Africa is unique in its own way, and Transsion has spent many years breaking new grounds on everything from channel distributions, sales and marketing and branding awareness,” Cui was quoted as saying by Chinese media. “This is not an easy feat to replicate.”