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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 ...

Dayo Olutunfese, a Lagos tech blogger, notes that a monthly BlackBerry plan is roughly one-tenth the price of regular Internet plans. “Internet access is still expensive in Nigeria, but with BlackBerry you can have access to the Internet, 24 hours a day,” Mr. Olutunfese says. “The price (of the device) is still on the high side for the everyday Nigerian, but believe me – everybody wants a BlackBerry in Nigeria.”

Opening an office here also allows RIM to catch up with larger global rivals Nokia and Samsung in terms of offering support to customers. It is hard to overstate the impact of a broken mobile phone in a place like Nigeria. In a place with few laptops, PCs or home phones, many Nigerians may have no other connection to their family, friends or business contacts.

This is exactly what has happened to Mr. Kumbin, the student, who is now in a store brimming with dozens of competing devices. The potential to lose a customer quickly, to lose market share, is all too real.

“I like it, but it fell out of my hand and it didn’t work – I brought it here and they can’t do anything,” Mr. Kumbin says, holding his non-functioning BlackBerry in the store in Lagos’s Computer Village. “Samsung, Nokia, they have people here. You have a problem, and you bring it to them.”

As he complains that there is no RIM store, RIM executives are around the corner, opening one. RIM has also hurried to open 60 software upgrade centres across Nigeria, which allows customers to install the latest software – something many can’t do on their own. It underscores how fast these markets can change, and how little time there is to cement the gains.

CHALLENGING THE GREY MARKET

RIM’s financial results have been disastrous in recent quarters. A billion-dollar profit in the first fiscal half of last year turned into a three-quarter-billion loss in this year’s first half. The battered stock price has left it vulnerable to a takeover. But RIM’s $2.3-billion (U.S.) of cash and investments gives the company time to right the ship.

Even if the country is challenging, RIM executives love Nigeria, where there’s an almost absurd enthusiasm for BlackBerry.

The most visible display is a film franchise called BlackBerry Babes . Produced by Nigeria’s prolific “Nollywood” film industry, it is based entirely around women wooing men into buying them BlackBerrys. In a typical scene, a woman pushes back a man who keeps trying to kiss her. “I’ve been begging you to buy me an ordinary BlackBerry, and you’re not saying anything,” she says, lying on a teal-coloured bed. The man, exasperated, asks how much this is going to cost him. “Depends on the model,” she replies coolly. “I want the highest one.”

Unfortunately for companies such as RIM, the entrepreneurial merchants of Lagos, aware of their customers’ income levels, feed a thriving “grey market” composed of older, second-hand BlackBerrys imported from markets such as the United Kingdom, as well as hammered-together refurbished BlackBerrys, none of which boost RIM’s hardware revenue. And the grey market – which could account for upward of 60 per cent of all the phones sold here – does not even count the traders who fly to Hong Kong, stuff fake “BlockBerrys” in suitcases, and sell them here to those who want but can’t afford even used BlackBerrys.

Lagos is a hustle-or-be-hustled city. And RIM’s Mr. Bose is out in Computer Village to make sure RIM doesn’t get hustled.

It’s the epicentre of Nigeria’s grey market, and he’s opening an official store meant to crack down on unauthorized sales, and ramp up official ones. As he arrives, there is already a bustling crowd gathered outside. Two locals, hiding around the side of the building, are holding up the ends of a novelty red ribbon. A local retail partner’s wife, decked out in a leopard print jacket, jumps in front of the awaiting cameras to pose with RIM’s executives. As he walks in the hot, dusty air past very unofficial-looking BlackBerry vendors and stands selling used PC printers, Mr. Bose sweeps his arm out in a semi-circle and huffs, “You asked about challenges?”

COMPETITION LOOMS

On Nigerian radio, RIM’s competition is already coming in loud and clear.

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