The first smartphone made in Africa is not all it seems to be

Technology & Convergence

News of the first African-designed smartphone release caused a lot of excitement last year. And so it should have: Africa is, after Asia, the largest mobile phone market in the world and entrepreneurs and inventors see great opportunity. But the phones are actually made in China, writes Judy Owono on her blog Quartz.

VMK, the company that produces the Elikia smartphone, is not a new player in the tech scene. During the 2011 Africa Web Summit organized in Brazzaville, the capital city of Congo-Brazzaville, CEO Verone Mankou introduced the company’s first product, the Tablet Way-C. Positive reports began circulating in June 2011 about the tablet, which VMK says was designed in Congo-Brazzaville. Back then, I was one of the first to write about the breaking news on Global Voices, a news site that pulls from a community of international bloggers. My initial reaction was enthusiastic, but after a closer look and an interview with Mankou, there seemed too many gray areas on the claim that the tablet was “made in Africa.”

I became suspicious when I found the exact same tablet as the one produced by VMK from an online electronics retailer and wholesaler, McBub.com, based in Shenzen in southern China. The irony was that its product was cheaper, could be purchased in bulk, and could be branded with a company logo for only a little extra cost. When asked about this, Mankou explained that the difference in price was mainly due to VMK’s planned “after-sales services” and local presence in Congo. I asked Mankou to comment for this piece and he declined.

Congo-Brazzaville has ambitions to become the region’s tech hub: as the Congolese minister of post and telecommunications, Thierry Moungalla, explained in 2011 to China Daily, he was “overseeing a strategy to encourage the digital economy, in the provision of e-government, e-commerce, e-learning and e-health.” But Congo-Brazaville does not seem to have created an ecosystem for tech innovation, and the latter does not seem to be a priority for the government.

In the country’s budget for 2013, the Ministry of Scientific Research and Technology Innovation will receive only $10 million for its investments in research and development. That’s 0.16% of the $6 billion budget of the country and most of this money will go to agricultural and medical research. This lack of policy prevents the country from benefiting from employment and economic opportunities that come when a government takes tech innovation seriously. Therein lies the rub, and why we should not be excited, but rather wary of the news.

There seems to be confusion as to how much research and development cost for the Elikia: Mankou said this part of the innovation process cost $120,000 or $300,000 depending on which interview you read (French). In both cases, it’s far from the $1 billion invested yearly by Apple, a company that VMK wants to emulate.

According to an article published on Congolese website Kumatoo.com, the government funded up to 50% of the R&D cost (French); African businessmen paid for the rest. An article (French) published on Senegalese website, Seneco Plus, explains that the government of Congo decided to give $700,000 to Mankou after banks refused to invest in the smartphone project. That sum was very helpful, according to Mankou himself.

These contradictory statements made me interested in the engineers who had taken part in the VMK’s tablet’s development and its subsequent smartphone project in September 2012. Last week, I spoke to Bernard Adanlessossi, a senior software engineer based in Bern, Switzerland, who had worked with Verone Mankou in 2011 on the applications platform for VMK’s first product, tablet Way-C, but no longer  works with VMK. When asked if he thinks it’s possible for engineers in Congo to design the hardware of a complex high-tech device, he answered:

“There is a lack of competencies in terms of information technologies in Congo. Engineers know how to write code, but don’t know how to embed it on an electronic chip. To be able to do this, they would need have some skills in electronics, which they lack”.

Moreover, Adanlessossi works at the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual property. We talked about value-add of tech products made in Africa. Design is defined in the January 2005 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education as:

“A systematic, intelligent process in which designers generate, evaluate, and specify concepts for devices, systems, or processes whose form and function achieve clients’ objectives or users’ needs while satisfying a specified set of constraints”.

Congo-Brazzaville indeed lacks higher-education institutions in computer science and engineering (French) and equipped facilities for research and development. Of course, VMK could invoke the legend of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s garage in Los Altos, California. But Apple’s history might have been different if Los Altos was not in the Santa Clara Valley, one of the most sophisticated technological complexes in 1976, a proximity that allowed access to machine tools.

I asked VMK how many patents the company had filed with the African Organization of Intellectual property to protect its products, but did not get a response. Doing some research, I found this comment made by Verone Mankou in September 2012, during the launch of his famous smartphone, reported by Congolese newspaper La semaine Africaine (French):

“To protect the brand, the company decided to apply for a patent in China, where the smartphone Elikia is produced”.

When asked whether Adanlessossi believes that a “Made in Africa” device that does not have its patents filed with the African intellectual Property Organization could still be considered African, he replied:

“Saying that you filed patents in China, which nobody can trace, equals to saying that you have no patents”.

On its website, VMK reaffirms the authenticity of its products:

“The issue related to authentication is worth being raised. Indeed, too many people confusedly translate the English concept “designed” (which means in French “planned, the way or process in which something was planned and made – or a drawing which showed how a object, machine or building was made”) into the French word “désigner” (something which expresses physical appearance to be given to a product). Both words are totally in terms of meaning and context; however, we assume that the phonetic approach of the two words might easily mislead anybody”.

That’s exactly the problem: VMK asserts that its devices actually possess the alleged or apparent attribute of being African. But appearances are what these products are about. So far, there has been no material evidence of VMK’s participation in the planning of this product, no clarity on investments needed, no competencies, and no past credentials for product design in Congo.

The question on the genuine character of VMK’s devices is essential since the volume of smartphone consumers is increasing exponentially on the African continent. Africa’s role in the production chain, and thus its added value to a product, must be real if Africa genuinely wants to stand as a global player in tech innovation.

Julie Owono runs the Africa Desk for Internet Sans Frontières, a France-based nonprofit that defends press freedom. She is also co-founder of Feowl.com, an open-source platform that produces data on public services in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is a slightly shortened version of the article that appears on her blog Quartz.