Mi-Fone’s Alpesh Patel on starting a mobile phone company from scratch

“I put my life savings into it. I’m my own angel investor. We don’t have any private equity, we don’t have any VC. We are living proof that you can build a business today in Africa, a pan-African business, with zero,” Mi-Fone founder and CEO Alpesh Patel told CNBC Africa’s Chris Bishop in a recent interview.

Alpesh Patel

Alpesh Patel

Mi-Fone was founded in 2008, and manufactures a range of “affordable, yet innovative” handsets. According to Patel, the company has “done more than US$30m” since it started.

While well-known brands such as Nokia, Samsung and Blackberry remain large players in Africa, a number of new entrants have entered the market, many of them with a specific focus on the continent. Tecno, a Chinese company that exclusively targets the African market, claims to be one of the continent’s fastest growing mobile brands. South Africa’s Seemahale Telecoms and CZ Electronics last year also announced it had joined forces to roll out a competitively priced smartphone.

“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,” Patel told How we made it in Africa in an earlier interview.

“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,” he added.

Patel’s family originally relocated to Africa from India. He was born in Uganda, but moved to the UK after the Idi Amin regime ordered many Asians who were not Ugandan citizens to leave the country. After completing university in the UK, Patel started selling mobile phones to the Chinese. He says this made him a millionaire at the age of 23. However, the good times didn’t last as more competition entered the Chinese market. Patel relocated to South Africa, and eventually ended up working for Motorola on the continent.

After he left Motorola in 2007, Patel was approached by other companies to run their African businesses, but was determined to go out on his own, saying he is not prepared “to run around for someone else”.

In the CNBC interview, Patel encouraged other entrepreneurs to focus on what they are good at, and not try to be a Jack of all trades. “You have to be in a situation where you work seven days a week, but it is not actually working, because you enjoy what you are doing. Because if you are happy and you enjoy what you are doing, you will be more successful.”