In the smartphones jungle, the tortoises appear to be beating the hares at their own game. A few years ago, only a few big brands ruled the world of palms with touch screen cellphones. Samsung, iPhone, HTC, and Nokia/Lumia were the brands to have.
But the entry of cellphones makers from China have turned the tables, changing the rules of the game by downgrading the smartphone from a status symbol to a necessity gadget. While the established global brands in the league of Samsung and iPhone banked on high cost to keep customers salivating for the privilege to spot their labels, the Chinese broke the barriers through the magic of balancing some passable quality and price.
The cheapest quality smartphone cost over Sh30,000 just four or so years ago. Today, with about Sh5,000 you can get a smart phone from China that gives you more or less the functionalities of the coveted iPhone 6, or even Samsung galaxy.
Tecno and Infinix were among the first Chinese smartphone brands to dare the low end of the market to own smartphones on a big scale. They started with very small gains as a market used to glossy brands frowned at dull designs and slow speeds of their operating systems.
As the big brands danced around their high class quality and launched smartphone after smartphone with little upgrades but huge price leaps, the Chinese were meticulously learning the market trends and tastes. Soon they improved quality and designs, even shamelessly reproducing shapes and feel of successful brands like Samsung and iPhone, but strategically hiding their own brand names either at the back cover or front bottom.
Soon the middle to low end markets started cheering them and their gadgets started flying off the shelves, attracting more players like Huawei, Gionee, Cubot and many others into Kenya.
The Chinese brands knew distribution is key in the mass market. So as the glossy brands opened glossier dealerships uptown the tortoises went for little but many partnerships downtown where they reached thousands of Kenyans dying to have a smartphone that can take photos and access Facebook, and much later, Whatsapp.
They also did something else. Chinese smartphone brands took advantage of growing internet use in Kenya to sell their phones online.
They partnered with retail sites like Jumia and Kilimall by offering huge discounts that baited many buyers.
With barriers broken, now Samsung and its peers find themselves competing directly with Huawei and group. Before the big brands realised it, the Chinese brands had captured the low end market and are coming up on the high table for some lunch.
Huawei two years ago launched the Mate series for high-end market. Now in the fourth or so release, the latest Huawei Mate 10 Pro was a clear message to the bigger brands that so-called small boys have come of age and can do battle with the big guys.
Tecno Phantom series sends a similar message while Infinix and Gionee are steadily scaling the ladder, not forgetting OPPO.
With Chinese agility in pricing, the big smartphone brands will soon find themselves struggling in a market they once controlled. No wonder Samsung two weeks ago launched its Grand Prime Plus and J3 2016 to reaffirm its presence in the low-end market. The tortoises are surely turning into hares.