Ugandan-born Alpesh Patel quit his job at Motorola to start his own pan–African mobile phone brand Mi-Fone. Five years on, Mi-Fone has sold more than 1.5 million devices in 14 countries across the continent. The company – headquartered in Port Louis, Mauritius – targets low income earners in Africa with its handsets that sell at between US$12 and $100.
Mi-Fone is embarking on a multi-million dollar manufacturing plant project in Nigeria and is eyeing the smartphone market in the populous West African nation. Patel told How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi more about Mi-Fone, doing business in the competitive mobile devices market and why Africa needs to hold on to her resources.
What inspired you to establish Mi-Fone, given that the market is highly competitive and dominated by multinationals?
Multinationals by their very nature are slow and bureaucratic and this created an opportunity for small players like us to get in there with our flexible and cost efficient business strategies.
Has the brand lived up to your expectations five years since you launched?
We could have done much better if African corporates and big telecommunication firms had a similar mindset to that of American firms. In the US they foster entrepreneurship and startups. They welcome new ideas and new creative ways of doing business. African organisations are set in their ways. They look at small companies as not being able to add value hence we are given very few chances. It means we have to work harder and longer to prove ourselves. Only now, after five years, are we garnering some sort of credibility. Had we been in the US and generated the type of revenues we have, we would have been celebrated all the way to the White House.
Most global phone manufacturers are looking at the African market. Does Mi-Fone have what it takes to stand up to this competition?
The mere fact that we are still around after five years shows clearly that we have what it takes to take on the big guys and beat them at their own game.
Africa has witnessed a technology boom in the last decade but most key players in hardware manufacturing are foreign. What does Africa need to build big indigenous companies?
We need funding from institutions and governments to help us create our own industries. Mi-Fone is now investing heavily into building its own African mobile ecosystem.
Describe the challenges you face at Mi-Fone.
Just being us is a challenge. Every day is a challenge and every day is tough. The easiest day was yesterday.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs in Africa?
Ensure you save some cash to start off on your own because getting funding in Africa is next to impossible unless you have a rich uncle. Do not rely on anyone. You must ensure you understand all the parts of your business.
Africa is receiving a lot of attention from investors, both local and foreign. How can the continent benefit from its potential and this new optimism?
Africans need to come together and start sharing ideas and sharing their wealth. Right now selfishness and inequality abound with just a few rich folks in the continent, while the rest of the population is poor.
Africans are also in the habit of selling out short. Right now every country in Africa is giving up its massive resources to the Chinese. Why not develop and control those resources ourselves? Africans need to take a more long-term view on developing themselves.