The MTN group has announced a partnership with China Mobile, chip-maker Unisoc and feature phone operating system, KaiOS, to bring affordable 3G 'smart feature phones' to the African market in the first few months of 2019.
MTN group CEO and president, Rob Shuter, made the announcement at a press briefing at AfricaCom in Cape Town today, along with executives from the partner groups.
"Our collaboration has been to design the world's first 3G smart feature phone," Shuter said showing off the phone.
Shuter said that the group aims to make the phones available across almost all of its operations in Africa and the Middle East from the first quarter of 2019. The 3G smart feature phone will initially be available in Nigeria and South Africa, followed very shortly by the other MTN operations. The telco aims to sell 10 million devices over the next three years.
"This device is very familiar to our 150 million customers who are not yet on a smartphone. It has a keyboard, it doesn't have a touch screen, and a very long battery life, which is important for many of our customers that still struggle for regular recharging of devices," he added.
The phone will run the KaiOS operating system, which means it will have all of the key Google applications including search, Google Maps, Google Assistance and YouTube as well as Facebook and Twitter. MTN will also pre-load the MTN Mobile Money app onto the phone "bringing MTN customers into the world of mobile financial services" and the MyMTN self-service app.
"It will be a very easy transition for our customers from a basic phone to the world of a smart feature phone and suits very well the data coverage that we have across many of our markets," Shuter added.
The device will give a smartphone-like 3G experience to users who usually only have access to feature phones running on 2G.
"We will definitely deploy the device in SA, even though SA is more advanced in terms of smartphone penetration and 4G penetration we still have a big segment of customers on basic phones. If I look at MTN SA, of the about 30 million active SIMs on the network we only have about 14 million or 15 million active data users, so that is about half of the base that has still not entered the data world," Shuter said.
The phone also has both a back and front camera and Shuter said it will be a "wonderful bridge device" to bring more people into the world of the smartphone. Due to the partnership with China Mobile, Unisoc and KaiOS it also has an affordable price point and will cost around $20 (R290) per phone.
The phone will also have its own official brand on the continent that is yet to be announced.
KaiOS already powers close to 50 million smart feature phones globally, including in the US, Canada, India, China, and several countries in Europe. It has overtaken iOS as the second most popular mobile operating system in India (based on data usage).
Earlier in the day Shuter announced during his keynote speech that the telco would be re-launching Mobile Money in South Africa early next year, and planned to bring Mobile Money to Nigeria for the first time in the second quarter of 2019.