“If there were a technology heaven, It would be in Nigeria…”
That’s what Alex Dadson, Qualcomm’s Managing Director, West Africa, told the gathering of devs and tech enthusiasts at the last edition of Developer’s Parapo, hosted by the Co-Creation Hub in Yaba. Mr. Dadson was there to talk about the firm’s plans to stimulate the growth of the Nigerian mobile market through the development of next gen technologies and services for 3G devices.
If the name Qualcomm is only vaguely familiar, don’t worry — all you need to know is that there is an 80 percent probability that the device with which you’re reading this post contains their chipset technology. Despite it’s enormous share of the semiconductor market, Qualcomm is essentially a B2B entity and their business doesn’t serve end users directly, but rather other companies that are better known — the Samsungs, Apples, Nokias and other consumer technology brands. What it lacks in public visibility however, it more than makes up for in its hugely influential business and technology strategy. If you want to talk about making things happen, Qualcomm is right up there along technology’s biggest players.
Which brings me back to Mr. Dadson’s curious metaphor, how come there is a tech heaven in Nigeria, and we didn’t get the memo? Why is Qualcomm, a chipset maker and a globally entrenched one at that, interested in Africa and Nigeria in particular? As it turns out, the memo is out there for anyone who cares to read it. Nigeria has been described by Goldman Sachs as one of the Next Eleven economies that are on their way to becoming, along with the BRICs, the world’s largest economies in the 21st century. A lot of this growth is being driven by technology and the telecoms sector. Of the top ten telecommunications networks in Africa, three reside in Nigeria alone. The country is one of Africa’s biggest Blackberry sympathisers, and mobile technology adoption is swelling along with a growing middle class. Even Google is taking keen interest. In a comic moment, Mr. Dadson asks “when you see a lot of white people crammed on the flight to Nigeria, do you ask yourself what they are going to do there?” There is huge potential in Africa, a whole new market just begging to be served. One big enough that even usually quiet players like Qualcomm are not only taking notice, but are angling for the inside track in a race for mindshare that has already begun in earnest.
The quickest way to do this is by aligning with existing local interests that are most active in mobile technology. These include OEMs (mobile hardware), telecommunication companies (voice, data and connectivity), and technology clusters — hubs, accelerators and developer communities (software, content and solutions). Together, they constitute an ecosystem that requires careful cultivation and nurturing — for a business like Qualcomm’s, profitability is tied to the synergy of these actors.
From the OEM side of of things, Qualcomm is aggressively pushing it’s Snapdragon range of processors. With Snapdragon, Qualcomm has integrated the gamut of mobile functionality onto one single “all in one chip”. These chips can be found in more than 340 mobile devices across major mobile OEMs and mobile OS platforms. One thing about the Snapdragon range that Qualcomm likes to emphasise every chance they get is how they are designed to be resource and power efficient, without compromising their ability to get things done, a theme that of course resonates deeply with Africa and its endemic power issues.
From the developer angle, Qualcomm is trying to cultivate a universe of mobile content, software and solutions based on Qualcomm technology, and the Snapdragon Developer Program is the funnel into that universe. The programme creates a compelling incentive for developers to target Snapdragon-based devices — in addition to free developer tools and resources, members of the Snapdragon Developer Program gain access to direct Qualcomm support, exposure and co-marketing opportunities. According to Mr. Dadson, even if you’ve got a great app idea that works, you still need a big brother to hook you up. “Hooking up”, in this context, would mean opportunities to market and demo apps at key events and tradeshows, getting their apps preloaded onto manufacturer devices (Angry Birds style), and extensive help with optimisation across Qualcomm pioneered next gen technologies, including 3G and 4G, Peer to Peer, Augmented Reality, HTML5 and more. And of course the big brother is none else than Qualcomm. Mr. Dadson encouraged developers to take advantage of these resources and use them to create solutions to local problems that only they know well enough to solve — “If your app is great, it influences someone to pick up a device with our chip in it, thereby creating value for everyone in the industry”.
Image via Phil Hart
As interesting as the developer programme proposition sounds, I’m sure Mr. Dadson knows that getting local devs onto the Qualcomm bandwagon won’t exactly be a cakewalk. But that particular challenge pales in comparison to the conundrum that Nigeria’s telecoms sector represents. Other known issues aside, sub-par communications infrastructure is one of the biggest barriers to profits in Nigeria’s mobile technology industry.
“My mandate is to accelerate 3G adoption and get people off GSM. A lot of operators don’t have the incentive to move to 3G and take data seriously, they are still making stupendous profits with their legacy 2G infrastructure”, Mr. Dadson said.
“3G adoption is important because the apps you’ll be creating won’t work with crappy 3G”.
Obviously, Mr. Dadson isn’t impressed with what Nigeria’s major ISPs have been touting as “3G” for the past few years. And I agree with him that this is the main reason why most high end mobile devices are irrelevant to the Nigerian consumer. A $600 productivity powerhouse in New York would, upon arriving Nigeria, become an expensive toy that serves little purpose beyond being an ostentatious symbol of status because all the supporting infrastructure that it is designed to work with — maps, NFC, payments, local content, and most especially high fidelity 3G connectivity are currently mere caricatures of what they should be. For Qualcomm, this translates into less business — the devices their chips are designed for sell less — and you can’t blame people for not buying expensive devices whose utilities are dampened by the limitations of their locale.
Qualcomm is not deterred however. Consumer Blackberry trends show that Nigerians are not averse to pricey high-end devices, provided there is sufficient functional motivation to acquire them. Somehow — and it’s a big how — the telecoms infrastructure bar needs to be raised to global standards. Possibly by NCC regulatory intervention (number portability?) or by the entry of new players into the sector, a competitive incentive that disrupts the Nigerian communications oligopoly and forces innovation. Only then will people see mobile devices as functional investments that can help them live more productively.
Like Amazon, Apple and Google, Qualcomm realises that people no longer buy products. They buy into ecosystems. And the Qualcomm ecosystem is as delicate as it is complex. Their chipsets are bought by OEMs; the technologies behind them only work when the local telecommunication infrastructure support them; and adoption happens only when compelling user experiences, powered by locally relevant software, are available. When mobile can make a difference in the life of a consumer, they have incentive to acquire increasingly sophisticated devices, which is good for the OEMs. They will communicate more via sms and voice, but mostly via data, which is a boon to the telcos. And of course, they will use apps, which will make developers happy. With the right amounts of market strategy and serendipity, all of these interactions will create an immense positive feedback loop with the potential for astounding profits — a slice of heaven for all concerned.
If you think that all of this is speculative, you might want to take a look a the following tweet –
A brewing partnership between Encipher & Qualcomm. Details as they evolve.
— Encipher Group (@enciphergroup) April 7, 2012
As we say around here, boys are certainly not dulling. Add a Qualcomm processor to an Inye, and who knows, we might soon begin to mention Encipher’s tablet in the same breath as Amazon’s Kindle Fire (distribution model niceties aside). Naija’s tech game just went up another notch, and I’m taking this hint as a sign of things to come.
Welcome, Qualcomm. Welcome to Nigeria.