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Staff wait for customers at the grand opening of Research In Motion's first official BlackBerry store in Lagos, Nigeria. (Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail)
Staff wait for customers at the grand opening of Research In Motion's first official BlackBerry store in Lagos, Nigeria. (Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail)

In the developing world, RIM makes its last stand Add to ...

Steven Kumbin walks through torn-up, pot-holed streets, steps across an open sewer filled with rotting garbage and enters one of the many mobile phone shops crammed into this ramshackle neighbourhood of Lagos known as Computer Village.

Outside, the roads are filled with honking motorcycle taxis, dented minibuses and damaged cars shipped here from the West. Near a toppled cement pole and its twisted electrical wires, young men lounge next to wooden carts loaded with black jerry cans of drinking water, stark signs of the city’s – and Nigeria’s – lack of basic services and infrastructure.

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But inside the phone shop, Mr. Kumbin could be anywhere.

Large displays of mobile devices from Samsung Electronics Co., Nokia Corp. and Research In Motion Ltd. gleam down at him, as a dozen neatly dressed sales assistants stand ready to help. A 23-year-old student who works part-time as a driver to Lagos’s wealthier citizens, Mr. Kumbin is exactly the type of customer these smartphone makers are trying to reach in the developing world, where a fast-rising middle class spells huge opportunity.

For shoppers in Lagos, though, the choice for a wireless device is an easy one.

“Every young teenager’s dream is to own a BlackBerry phone,” Mr. Kumbin says. “It’s very popular with students, businessmen. But more people are buying BlackBerry – more people come for it everyday.”

In countries such as Nigeria, far from the iPhone-toting masses of the developed world, BlackBerry remains king among smartphones.

The BlackBerry is not only the No. 1 smartphone in Nigeria, but it’s also tops in all of Africa, according to research firm Canalys. The story is much the same in Mexico, Indonesia and many of the world’s other booming emerging markets, where RIM leads nascent smartphone sectors with as much as a 60-per-cent market share.

It’s the kind of dominance that RIM enjoyed for years during its uncontested heyday in North America, before the arrival of wildly popular iPhones and Android phones sent the BlackBerry maker into freefall.

As Apple Inc., Samsung and other global giants clobber RIM’s market share in the Western world, RIM’s sales are plunging, profits have turned to gushing losses, and its stock price has collapsed by about 95 per cent from its 2008 peak.

Now, enormous frontier countries such as Nigeria are critical for RIM’s desperate battle to survive. Thanks to a good head start abroad, international markets today account for nearly 60 per cent of RIM’s revenue. It’s crucial that RIM gets this right, and avoids the missteps that contributed to the BlackBerry’s struggle in the West. By pushing hard to keep its lead in new foreign markets, RIM could not only secure lucrative footholds in regions with years of strong growth ahead, but buy the company time to rebuild its business in North America with its next-generation devices slated for launch early next year.

The developing world, in short, is RIM’s last chance.

But even if RIM has talked up the promise of international growth throughout its recent struggles, these various emerging markets are far from static. They are risky, volatile, fast-changing places. Companies need to fight relentlessly to sustain success. And as competition crashes into these markets, the battle for customers like Mr. Kumbin – and the hundreds of millions of others like him – is getting more intense.

Indeed, though Apple doesn’t have a store anywhere in Nigeria, it has recently struck some local retail partnerships and its devices are starting to pop up.

Mulling the phone he may choose next, Mr. Kumbin muses: “I like the iPhone, too.”

‘THIS IS THE PLACE TO BE’

With more than 170 million people, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation. About one out of every six Africans is Nigerian. The BlackBerry has proven especially popular with African youth, and Nigeria just happens to be an incredibly young country: Roughly 40 per cent of the population is aged 14 and under.

The country also boasts the continent’s second-largest economy after South Africa, and one that is growing rapidly. A Citigroup economist predicts Nigeria’s economy will grow at an average rate of 6.9 per cent until 2050. Because there’s almost no land-line phone infrastructure, mobile growth has been explosive. There are roughly 100 million mobile phone SIM cards out there, although the number of actual users is something far less since networks are so congested that many people carry multiple phones.

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