‘Made in Rwanda’ smartphones by Mara set to hit the market by June

Thursday May 2 2019

ceo

Ashish Thakkar,CEO Mara Phone. Photo | Cyril NDEGEYA 

MOSES K. GAHIGI
By MOSES K. GAHIGI
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For the first time, starting in June, the country will export Mara smartphones to other markets. Rwanda Today’s MOSES K GAHIGI spoke to the man behind this enterprise, to take us through how he came up with a pan-African phone

Below are excerpts

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How did the idea of Mara smartphones come about?

Mara smartphones came about due to a need to make a transformative impact on our continent.

We need high quality and affordable smartphones. Currently, high quality devices are not affordable and the ones that are affordable are not of great quality.

So we wanted to solve this. The second big challenge that our continent faces is that we are such a large consumer of jobs and we are even going to become a bigger consumer of smartphones, but nothing is manufactured on our continent.

We create zero jobs in the process. Some companies have started basic assembly lines, which focus on basic, low skills, but they don’t really manufacture. We saw an opportunity in these two challenges. We have benefited from the country’s enabling doing business environment.

Bank of Kigali is financing the project. We are excited that by June, people will be able to buy smartphones made right here in Rwanda.

What unique qualities does the Mara smartphone offer especially in regard to African needs?

The phone has been designed for our continent, it has a gorilla glass which means it is not breakable glass. However if it falls and cracks, the crack will not spread. It has a tago charger, which means that within 30 minutes 60 per cent of the phone is charged.

This is important for places with power issues, especially rural areas. The phone also has a very strong battery life. We’ve made sure that we have upheld the standards and all our phones also have a standard fingerprint reader, which is important for mobile money and for biometric authentication.

One of our models, the Mara Z has facial recognition and can be used for citizen surveys, telcos can use it for KYC services. It also has unlimited free photo and video storage. These are features that are useful for people from all walks of life.

What is the competitive edge of Mara smartphone and how will it create a market for itself in a market that is already dominated by big players like Apple, Samsung, Tecno and others?

These companies are much larger than us. We are a small African company that is growing. The reality is can we make sure that we give quality which is as good or better than certain peers and which are affordable.

Everyone will appreciate the fact that it is made in Africa, but it doesn’t mean that they are ready to compromise on quality. We are not compromising on quality.

We are cutting out layers to make sure the price is extremely affordable, we are not trying to be the biggest, we are trying to be the best, that’s why we are putting our brand on it.

How affordable is the Mara smartphone?

For a phone with all these specifications it’s going for $199 and $139. We are doing the manufacturing from here and not just some screw drivers. We are making the motherboards from here. We shall have service centres around the country and majority of our employees will be women. The company will employ between 150 to 200 employees.

You are manufacturing phones in Rwanda that require highly skilled manpower that is not even readily available here. Being chair of the African Development Bank presidential youth advisory council, what key gaps do you think need to be closed to achieve youth employment on the continent?

I started as a 15 year-old entrepreneur with no capital, no ability to network on our continent. So I know firsthand what it means being in that position. When you think about our youth demographic, the fact that majority of our continent is young, 80 per cent being below the age of 35.

 It shows you that this can be a huge liability if the energies are not funnelled in the right way, but can also be the biggest asset for us as a continent.

Our youth are extremely entrepreneurial, extremely ambitious, and very patriotic. They have a true sense of values. Their connectivity through the Internet, smartphones, financial inclusion, all these things are going to come together and there is going to be a massive shift in the continent.

But for this to work there is a need for us to create the right enabling environment for our youth to unlock these opportunities.

What key practical recommendations do you have for African governments?

Governments should ask themselves how they are securing the future of jobs by looking into how they are skilling their youth, creating coding institutes, how they can plug in Artificial Intelligence and improve access to finance.

Some of them haven’t even got the right enabling structure from a tax structure, from an access to finance structure, from a policy structure. If we don’t solve this youth unemployment issue, it can easily blow up in our faces.

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