we’re missing the opportunity call on mobile phones by not harnessing our energy, entrepreneurship and the numbers


LISTENING to a podcast the other day I learnt that China has so much of everything that one point in recent history they had more billionaires (United States dollar terms) than the United States with 594 billionaires to America’s 535 billionaires in October last year.

This is not kaboozi relevant for us on its own, so don’t focus too closely on that point. Next, I learnt that the country with the most female billionaires was China – and since this was around Women’s Day I was intrigued and spent a bit more time on that.

Still, though, to focus on just that would be tantamount to gossip, so let’s move along quickly. One of those female billionaires, I learnt, is a lady called Zhou Qunfui.

She became the focus of my thoughts, and not just because her net worth is possibly US$8billion. She was born poor in 1970 and her partially blind single father made bamboo crafts and furniture to raise the family, while doing bicycle repairs. She herself, as a child, helped out by raising animals to earn more money for the family.

She dropped out of school at age 16 and became a migrant worker in Shenzhen, and ended up working in a factory to earn a living while studying accounting. Story fast forward, at age 22 her factory employer shut down and she decided to start her own company making watch lenses.

But while doing so, she noticed that the mobile phone industry was growing pretty fast and soon got into making mobile phone screens instead, creating a touch-screen company called Lens Technology, that started supplying all the big names.

In brief: she started off poor, worked hard, used her experiences to identify opportunities, then employed professionals to take advantage of a fast growing market, producing high-value affordable items that would be demanded in high numbers.

I am not suggesting that any of us here should start a touch screen factory just like that. China has about 1.4billion people, so their mobile phone population is massive enough to get someone to a value of US$8billion.

But Uganda has about 23million mobile phone subscribers (not mobile phones) and an estimated 8million of those use smartphones. But focus on the mobile phones in general.

There is a massive range of opportunities around these mobile phones that we are allowing to go to people elsewhere, and then sending our scarce Uganda shillings there as well.

Where Zhou Qunfui chose to focus on just the screen of the smartphone, we need to find a Ugandan or ten to pick one aspect of the mobile phones being used daily by these 23million subscribers and turn that into their success story.

Most of these mobile phone users, for instance, use phone covers to either protect their devices from dust, dirt or damage, or simply to beautify them. I know young people who have more than one phone cover – sometimes changing them with their outfits.

Phone cover from allexpress.com
Photo from http://www.allexpress.com and product unlikely Made In Uganda

What is stopping someone from setting up a line of these accessories locally made, using our local materials and designed to fit these mobile phones? Where is our Zhou Qunfui to work out a way of turning so many materials into mobile phone covers – kitengi, barkcloth, light lugabire rubber, ensaansa, some brightly coloured batiks, and so on and so forth.

What about phone covers designed cleverly with the Uganda national colours or symbols like the Crested Crane, done in a manner we would proudly brandish? Or even phone covers designed for specific tribes or districts? I suspect that if some Ugandan Zhou Qunfui got in on this they would be quite successful.

What about other mobile phone accessories that could be churned out in vast numbers to take advantage of these 23million mobile phone subscribers? Mobile phone holders for use in the gym or while jogging? Mobile phone stands for use in propping up the phone so you can watch your videos easily at the coffee table (or, God forbid, office desk)?

Let’s just assume that of the 8million smartphones we have our local Zhou Qunfui could get 800,000 smartphones wrapped with her locally made Ugandan products – how much does each cost? The cheap imported plastic ones on the local market go for about Ushs30,000 (some cost thrice that!); that’s a Ushs2.4billion industry right there.

Continue the mathematics from there, Ugandan Zhou.

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