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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 ...

“This is the China of Africa, this is the place to be,” says Olu Akanmu, chief marketing officer for wireless carrier Airtel in Nigeria. “The market is competitive, but the potential is extremely huge.”

The upside for smartphone makers in this almost untapped market is especially large. There are only about four million smartphones, officially, in Nigeria – and two million of those are BlackBerrys.

That’s why Robert Bose, a silver-haired RIM executive in rimless glasses, is climbing into a black SUV at the head of a convoy guarded by enormous Nigerian security personnel at the luxury Federal Palace Hotel & Casino. With four-ways flashing and a police escort, they rumble past the sand-bag-stacked bunker on the hotel’s manicured front lawn and into the streets of central Lagos.

Global technology giants are chasing an opportunity that is well worth the hassle; it is the smartphone version of the colonial powers’ scramble for Africa, now the world’s fastest-growing wireless market.

And if Lagos is Nigeria’s beating heart, its main arteries are absolutely clogged. After grinding through the chaotic traffic of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest metropolis for more than an hour, partly along a raised highway with broken guardrails hanging off its side, Mr. Bose’s convoy pulls into a ramshackle neighbourhood near the international airport.

It’s Computer Village. This is where much of Lagos comes to buy the mobile phones that keep this entrepreneurial city bustling, despite the fact executives are often stuck in hours of gridlock every day.

RIM’s executives aren’t here for the jollof rice: They’re here to nail down a country-specific strategy that will prolong the company’s early momentum. Right now, Mr. Bose, RIM’s regional managing director for the Middle East and Africa, is traipsing out to Computer Village to open an official BlackBerry store.

“I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of the developing world, the emerging-markets business that we have, on RIM’s results,” Mr. Bose says. “The company recognizes that. And that’s why we’re willing to invest, and willing to do the things we’re doing here in Africa, to keep that going.”

GENERATING A GRASSROOTS BUZZ

Chidera Anukam is an 18-year-old student in Lagos with dyed purple highlights and 1,002 friends on BlackBerry Messenger. She uses RIM’s proprietary texting service to blast out party invites to all her BlackBerry-using peers. If you don’t have a BlackBerry, you’re unlikely to hear from her. “It’s very, very fashionable to have a BlackBerry,” she says, “especially if you have fancy pouches and, maybe, bedazzles on it, like mine.”

In Nigeria, comments like this are common, but in Ms. Anukam’s case, they are also officially sponsored. She is one of three BlackBerry ambassadors at the University of Lagos, and went through six arduous auditions for the privilege.

She’s responsible for creating an ostensibly grassroots buzz about BlackBerry by hosting parties around soccer matches and sponsoring events such as music competitions – the winner of one is being sent to a music school in London. There are teams of three students in each of the major Nigerian cities of Lagos, Port Harcourt, Calabar and Abuja, the capital. It is just one of the local strategies RIM is pursuing to maintain buzz as more people in Nigeria, especially young people, upgrade from “dumbphones” to smartphones.

Previously, the RIM team handling Nigeria was based out of Johannesburg, around 4,500 kilometres away in South Africa. Executives would make the roughly six-hour flight every few months to meet with carriers and manage the blossoming business. It was clearly not enough: RIM needed people on the ground. In late September, RIM officially opened an office in Lagos.

“In North America, and perhaps Europe, everything is done by contract, whereas here a lot of value is still placed on relationships,” says Waldi Wepener, RIM’s regional director for East, Central and West Africa. “We’ve decided to open an entity here so we can get closer to our customers and have more regular face-to-face meetings with them and build those relationships.”

But to win lots of new customers, prices must be kept low – a sign of the difficulty ahead for RIM to make good profits in the developing world.

With Nigeria’s carriers, such as Airtel and MTN, RIM has negotiated low-cost, monthly data plans like the 30-day, BlackBerry Complete plan that costs only 1,400 Naira (less than $10). Even cheaper, at 1,200 Naira, is a BlackBerry Social plan that gives access to BBM, Facebook and Twitter.

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