Fueling Ghana's mobile data revolution [China Daily: Hong Kong Edition]
(China Daily: Hong Kong Edition Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Huawei phones are making Internet access more affordable
Exhaust fumes and the heavy scent of bitumen warming under the tropical sun waft through the open windows of the taxi.
Head porters and phone card sellers make their way up the rows of vehicles, vying for customers in Accra's morning rush hour.
They sing out as they go: "Vodafone! MTN! Tigo! Airtel! GLO!"
The vendors wear gaudy advertising vests in the colors of the telecom companies as they sell the scratch cards, often for as little as 1 Ghana cedi ($0.26) a piece.
The street vendors are the public face of one of the fastest growing industries in Ghana, where a flood of cheap smartphones is bringing down the cost of mobile Internet access and stimulating the telecommunications industry.
The number of mobile data subscribers in Ghana has been rocketing up at an annual rate of almost 40 percent.
As the traffic moves along, MTN billboards loom overhead. The slogans read: "Love to browse?" and "My first smartphone". The latter is an advertisement for a 150 cedi smartphone from Huawei.
The Chinese technology giant is leading the push to make communications in West Africa affordable, in turn carving out a substantial share of the market for its products and services.
Geoffrey Li, public relations manager for Huawei Technologies Ghana, says the company is the major equipment and services provider to MTN, Vodafone and other leading telecom operators.
"Because Ghana is a developing country, most of the population cannot afford very costly communication equipment," Li says. "Of course, now is the information century, so if more and more people can communicate efficiently, society and the economy could benefit from it."
Li says communications costs were high when Huawei first ventured into Ghana in 2001.
"After we came, because of our cost-effective products, the market was more competitive," he says. "Communication costs became more affordable.
"In Ghana you can make calls to outside countries, and the cost is even cheaper than in China and many other countries.
"That's an impact we made after we came to the market."
Occupying several floors in one of the few high-rise buildings in Osu, Accra's shopping and nightlife district, Huawei employees have a good view of the city's most popular street. Below, a multitude of phone company advertising umbrellas of red, green, yellow and blue adorn stalls along the dusty sides of Oxford Street.
Since Huawei registered as a local business in Ghana in 2007, it has been on a development fast track, with the employee count now at 850.
One of the most successful initiatives this year has been the introduction of the Ascend Y220 smartphone, sold for 150 cedis in a package deal with Ghana's biggest telecom services provider, MTN.
Sales have reached 70,000 phones since the affordable model was introduced in February. The deal was so popular that the first shipment of phones sold out.
Li says smartphones will be a key focus for Huawei in Ghana over the next few years.
"Smartphones are becoming more and more popular in this country. We collaborated with MTN to launch a smartphone that is very competitive in terms of price.
"It's the first ever smartphone many Ghanaians will use, and it's very affordable.
"We don't make a profit, but we want to capture the smartphone market, to get more people to enjoy using the smartphones.
"This can stimulate development of the telecom market because more and more people use the data services, and the telecom operators can benefit from it."
While Ghana reached "lower middle income" status as a country in 2011, its annual per capita income is estimated by the World Bank at just $1,760. That means the average person cannot afford high-end technology. Accessing the Internet via a computer is out of reach for many.
"Many Ghanaians cannot afford products like laptops or tablets, and that's why we bring this kind of very affordable smartphone to them," Li says. "So they can enjoy the benefit of data services, with a very affordable price.
"We are sure that more and more people will start using smartphones, and more people will have access to the Internet."
The popularity of Huawei's smartphones in Ghana is part of a bigger picture, which shows Ghana, and Africa as a whole, experiencing a mobile data revolution.
The number of mobile data subscriptions in Ghana, which has a population of 25 million, rocketed to 13.4 million in May, up 39.7 percent from the same time last year, an analysis of National Communications Authority statistics shows.
That is comparable to annual growth in overall mobile broadband penetration of 40 percent across Africa. But Ghana, with its mobile Internet penetration estimated at more than 50 percent, is ahead of most of the continent, which has an average total penetration of about 20 percent.
This rapid growth in Africa, and other developing markets in the Middle East and Latin America, has helped Huawai to increase its global shipments of smartphones to 34.27 million in the first half of this year, a year-on-year growth of 62 percent.
Huawei's strategy for successful integration in Ghana includes hiring and training a high proportion of locals for its staff. It also includes its corporate social responsibility program, through which it has donated several communications technology laboratories for universities, among other initiatives in health and education.
Of Huawei's 850 workers in Ghana, about 84 percent are locals.
"It's Huawei's strategy to localize," Li says. "In Europe, in Russia, in Australia, most of our management are local staff. It is also our aim to do this in Africa."
The company provides opportunities for its best performing employees to go on training trips to China.
Ruby Boateng, a compensation and benefits specialist, joined Huawei after completing the year of national public service required of young Ghanaians. She said that at Huawei she has gained a lot of experience by working with different companies on a range of projects.
"I think working with the Chinese and Huawei is the best thing that has happened to me, and I hope to stay for a long time to learn more."
Boateng says the career path available at Huawei has helped her rise through the ranks.
She says that in Ghana, the industry has kept growing, despite a downturn in the economy.
(China Daily 09/01/2014 page17)
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