Transsion Holdings Ltd, a Shenzhen-based smartphone maker few Chinese have heard of, is securing the jewel in the crown of the mobile world－the African continent, one of the most promising mobile arenas in the world.
Transsion has grabbed 40 per cent of the African market, outcompeting much bigger opponents like Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and Huawei Technologies Co Ltd.
Tecno and itel, two brands owned by Transsion, took the third and first spot in the African mobile market in the third quarter of 2016, respectively, data from technology consultancy Counterpoint Technology Market Research showed.
In the first half of 2016, Transsion shipped 32.9 million handsets to overseas markets. In comparison, the number for Huawei, the world's third-largest smartphone maker, was 25.4 million units.
Transsion was the first Chinese smartphone vendor to explore the African market. It also built the world's first smartphone plant in the continent. Its success highlights how little-known Chinese firms are conquering overseas markets by leveraging China's sophisticated manufacturing capacity and their experience to fight for survival in the domestic market.
Stephen Ha, general manager of Tecno, said: "We started to zero-in on the African market as early as 2008 after the competition intensified in China."
That was a time when the continent was almost forgotten by most big international brands. The lack of competitive local players also leaves a gap in the market for Transsion to fill.
The company quickly gained popularity through its dual-SIM smartphones.
Ha said: "We noticed local consumers wanted to have two SIM cards, but most of them could not afford two handsets."
Jessie Ding, a Shanghai-based smartphone analyst at consultancy Canalys, said what really helped Transsion secure dominance was its efforts to stay local in Africa and the management team's abundant experience in overseas markets.
Zhu Zhaojiang, founder and CEO of Transsion, has been in the smartphone industry for nearly two decades. Before setting up Transsion, he headed up the overseas business for a domestic firm and had travelled to more than 90 countries to explore opportunities.
Ding said: "Such experience gives Transsion an advantage in dealing with Africa's highly fragmented retailer landscape. The team knows what local businessmen want and how to build trust."
Instead of relying on telecoms carriers to sell handsets, Transsion set up its own retailing network in more than 30 African countries. Abdirahman Mohammed, a phone dealer based in Nairobi, Kenya, is one of them.
Mohammed said: "Transsion phones come in many varieties, with three brands covering the low, middle and high-end markets. Tecno is one of the best sellers in my store." He sells 70 to 100 Tecno phones every month and earn roughly $5 per phone.
To build up its reputation, Transsion has carried out an aggressive advertising campaign rarely seen in the Africa market. The strategy also increased local retailers' reliance on Transsion, because in this way, they don't need to spend much on advertising.
In 2011, Transsion set up a smartphone plant in Ethiopia, the first one in the African continent, to help speed up product delivery and lower costs. Now it is working on a new plant in Nigeria.
Michael Wandey, the administrator of a publishing company in Kenya, said his Tecno smartphone has the same features as other brands but is much cheaper.
"Its battery strength is very impressive. I also like its clear camera. Tecno will also be the top choice for my next handset," Michael said.
How a small firm is set to charm the continent
Transsion has set up two R&D centres in Nigeria－Africa's most populous country－and Kenya to offer tailor-made smartphone features for its African customers.
Making dark skin shine in selfies
Everyone in the world loves selfie, and African customers are no exception. But it is quite difficult for them to have good pictures, because darker skin makes it difficult for many cameras to recognise their faces. To solve this problem, Tecno smartphones locate consumers' face by focusing on their teeth and eyes. It has performed data analysis on African users' face shapes, colors and their preferences of photo effects to determine how much extra light exposure is needed to lighten up their photos.
Due to the poor telecoms infrastructure in Africa, consumers prefer dual SIM cards to ensure effective telecom signals, but most of them can't afford two handsets. Tecno is one of the first brands to launch dual-SIM-card feature phones there.
Distinct from markets that are already dominated by smartphones, the African continent is still in the transition from feature phones to smart handsets, with the former accounting for more than 60 per cent market share. It is important to cultivate consumer loyalty to ensure that they will opt for the same brand when upgrading their handsets.