Exploring how the development of Africa's phone manufacturing industry could drive mining; reviewing the benefits and dangers.
The mobile phone and smartphone manufacturing industry continues to evolve, with the pace of modern digital progress pushing innovation that shows no signs of waning. A report published by Statista forecasts the number of global smartphone users to be a whopping 6.2 billion by 2028. Africa’s market is expanding, as most Africans now own mobile phones, according to surveys conducted by Afrobarometer. There are reported figures of mobile phone ownership in 24 African countries being between 75 and 93 per cent. As the demand for smartphones increases, immense pressure is placed on fabrication industries and natural resources, as a wide range of minerals and metals are used in the manufacturing of smartphones.
These minerals, some of which are classified as conflict minerals, are sourced from African countries, some of which rank as some of the world’s leading suppliers. However, the continent’s smartphone manufacturing industry lags behind its peers, given the dominance of importation. There are also ethical concerns regarding the responsible sourcing of minerals and the impact of mining on the environment. Is Africa being outsmarted in what is considered a booming industry? A careful analysis of the concerns may provide some insight into this.
Owning a mobile phone, or a smartphone, brings unparalleled convenience to various everyday activities in communication, education and learning, internet access and navigation. From the circuitry to the battery to the phone case, a large mix of minerals exists in this handheld device, constituting over half of its components.
The commonly sought-after minerals for mobile phone fabrication include indium, tin, silicon, lithium, aluminium, gallium, copper, gold, silver, magnesium, nickel, tantalum, platinum, tungsten, cobalt and neodymium. The battery component is usually fabricated from minerals such as lithium and cobalt. Cobalt is a key mineral in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries. Copper is widely used for wiring applications in electronics because of its good heat and electricity conduction properties. When it comes to mobile phone screens, indium, tin and aluminosilicate glass (a mixture of aluminium and silicon) are very good options. Minerals like magnesium, nickel and aluminium are usually considered for mobile phone casings.
Conflict minerals like tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold are integral to the mobile phone fabrication process. Tin is commonly used in the soldering of metal parts while tantalum finds use in capacitors. Tungsten is used in making the phone’s vibrating motors, and gold is commonly incorporated in circuitry connectors. These four minerals are referred to as 3TG and are tagged conflict minerals because they are mined in areas facing political unrest, or are being traded to fund militant group operations, corruption and money laundering activities.
The mining of these minerals may also advance forced labour and violation of human rights. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates around 1,000,000 children labouring in mines around the world. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) known for producing more than half of the world’s cobalt, children are exploited and frequently relied upon in its mineral extraction activities.
UNICEF reports that around 40,000 children are working in the southern part of the DRC where cobalt mining takes place. Coltan, an ore from which tantalum is extracted, is also found in large deposits in the DRC. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), as of 2018, 67 per cent of the world's production of tantalum originated from DRC and Rwanda, and approximately 8 and 4 per cent were accounted for by Nigeria and Ethiopia respectively.
Hence, there is a strong likelihood that children mine 3TG minerals and cobalt found in everyday smartphones. This practice is highly unethical and constitutes child abuse. The DRC is widely considered an epicentre for conflict mineral mining although such minerals may be extracted in other geographical locations. Global efforts are actively being pursued to monitor the mining activities of 3TG minerals and to promote responsible sourcing of these minerals in conflict-prone countries like the DRC.
The mining of conflict minerals, particularly in the case of illegal mining, also negatively impacts the environment. Habitats of endangered species are destroyed, deforestation is encouraged, and toxins are released into water bodies and the atmosphere, posing health risks to residents in the affected areas. Open and deep pits created during mining activities, if left unattended, become potential death traps for unsuspecting locals. Concerns worldwide have sparked the conversation on addressing the adverse effects of conflict mineral mining.
Curbing these negative effects will demand initiatives that promote clean mining, and innovative technologies in mineral extraction must be adopted. This will ensure the safeguarding and conservation of the environment as well as natural resources.
Due to its possession of vast reserves of minerals commonly utilized in smartphone fabrication, Africa could potentially birth a thriving manufacturing industry in this field. The majority of smartphones in use on the continent are acquired via imports. According to International Data Corporation’s (IDC) Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, Africa’s mobile phone market recorded 55.8 million unit shipments in the third quarter of 2019, with smartphones accounting for 40.6 per cent of these units while 59.4 per cent accounted for by feature phones (moderately priced mobile phones with fewer features compared to a smartphone).
Despite the higher patronage for feature phones, the market for smartphones is still sizeable, particularly in the continent’s larger economies. Some of the largest smartphone markets in Africa are Nigeria, Egypt, and South Africa. Huawei, Samsung, and Transsion are regarded as the market leaders in the smartphone market space.
One country that is pioneering Africa’s path to a thriving smartphone manufacturing industry is Rwanda. In 2019, Rwanda’s Mara Group unveiled the first ever African-manufactured smartphone, right from the fabrication of the motherboard to the packaging. The group, which operates in the Kigali-based Mara Phones factory, aims to transform the country into a regional technology and innovation hub, with the hopes of also increasing Rwanda’s smartphone usage.
Mobile phone-making companies do exist in Africa, but the “Made in Africa” tag is often misused, as many of these factories just engage in assembling processes while relying on imports for most of their components. Indeed, many other international tech giants in the smartphone space, such as Apple and Google operate in this manner, with no strong fixation on claiming a specific “made in” tag.
This suggests that the focus should be on delivering superior quality rather than solely on the origin of manufacturing. The question at hand is whether Africans will appreciate locally manufactured smartphones. There is often a clear preference for imported devices and gadgets because these are widely regarded as “higher quality”.
However, it is possible to produce quality smartphones in Africa, matching the quality of imported smartphones, as demonstrated by Rwanda’s Mara group. Important factors such as understanding the target market, and demographic characteristics, and meeting consumer preferences are crucial to establishing a flourishing smartphone manufacturing industry. A successful marketing strategy is “glocalization”, used by smartphone manufacturing giant, Transsion, the creators behind the Tecno, Itel, and Infinix smartphone brands on the continent.
Glocalization is a strategy where products are tailored to meet the needs of specific demographic regions. Companies like Transsion have carried out extensive market analysis in Africa and are aware of consumer needs. They provide phones with a multi-SIM feature, and the technology behind their camera functionality has been carefully developed to improve exposure on the darker African skin tone resulting in optimal imaging. Acknowledging the multi-linguicism of most Africans, they offer keyboards in local dialects, thereby accessing previously untapped markets. Another appealing aspect is their relatively low price point, with feature phones being sold for under $20.
To establish their brand presence and popularity on the continent, feature phones were initially marketed as offering customers just what they needed in a mobile phone, and very little more. Eventually, a seamless transition into smartphone territory was made and patronized by locals who were by this time already familiar with their products.
This business strategy adopted by Transsion is a brilliant one which can be replicated by African countries. The challenge with Africa – already possessing highly sought-after minerals – lies in effective implementation. The continent has been stuck in the raw material acquisition phase for too long, failing to fully tap into its mineral resources. A subsequent phase would be to adopt a marketing strategy such as the one being used by competitors like Transsion.
Additionally, Africa needs more reliable and up-to-date data repositories for research and development activities and market analysis. An important “know-how” phase, realized by the setting up of assembly plants, is also crucial to setting up a thriving manufacturing industry. There are several operating assembly plants in various industries on the continent, some of which need major restructuring and revitalization.
Furthermore, a highly skilled workforce is essential to meeting global standards and delivering high-quality products. The journey towards Africa boasting of its booming smartphone manufacturing industry is a long and challenging one but as the well-known saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.