$50 Android Smartphones Are Disrupting Africa Much Faster Than You Think, Says Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales

What phone does Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales have in his pocket? An unlocked Android-powered 3G smartphone, made by Chinese mobile maker Huawei – which was selling for $85 on the streets of Kenya last year and now goes for $50.

While the majority of Africa’s mobile phones are more basic talk-plus-text feature phones — recent figures from analyst ABI Research suggest 3G connectivity accounts for 11 percent of the continent’s overall mobile subscriptions vs. 2G’s 62.7 percent — 300,000 of these $50 Android smartphones have been sold in Kenya, according to Wales and African carrier Safaricom’s CEO Bob Collymore. The pair were speaking at Vodafone’s Mobile for Good summit taking place in London today.

“What I always thought about mobile in Africa…is this [smartphone adoption] is coming in the future — in the future someday,” said Wales. “Well the someday’s happening faster than I ever realised.”

Wales’ own budget Android was brought back from Kenya by a friend and is now his personal smartphone. “The screen is a little smaller than the iPhone, it’s not quite as good but the battery lasts two days,” he joked.

The Wikipedia founder has been spending the past couple of years working on Wikipedia Zero – a project that’s aiming to broaden access to the online encyclopedia to those who don’t own a computer or can’t get access to 3G mobile data – but he says the pace of smartphone adoption in Africa is changing the digital landscape of the continent much faster than people think.

The pace caught the Wikimedia Foundation by surprise. The not-for-profit organisation behind Wikipedia had been focusing its emerging markets’ efforts on India but is now paying a lot more attention to Africa, thanks to the growth in ownership of cheap, Android-powered handsets — like the one in Wales’ pocket.

“This phone actually woke my mind up,” said Wales, pulling the handset out of his pocket and holding it up. “This is what really got me energised to say let’s go back and take another look at Africa, because we had focused most of our attention on India with the view that it was ready for us to do things.”

“If you go and you take a look at the numbers [of smartphone adoption in Africa]… the upward trend — obviously it’s still a very small penetration – but that upward trend is there really strongly. If you look at the total bandwidth into Nigeria, for example, it’s skyrocketing.

“Things that are very hard for us to all imagine are going to happen much faster than we realise,” he added. “People are going to be coming online for the first time. There’s this vibrant community of young app developers growing in Kenya and Nigeria.

“It’s mind-boggling to think what the possibilities are — and I’m super excited about it.”