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Connectivity

Is This Africa’s First Smartphone Factory?

A South African startup says it will soon start building smartphones, but claims of the first “made in Africa” phones have been around for years.

Onyx Connect, a South African startup with $10.5 million in funding, is in the news today as it prepares to become the “first company to ever manufacture smartphones in Africa.” Its factory, which is slated to open in early 2017, will produce Android handsets under a licensing deal with Google, according to an article in Bloomberg.

This sounds like a bit of encouraging progress for a continent that is widely viewed in the tech world as one of the last great untapped growth markets (just ask Facebook). Africans use mobile phones at about the same rate as people in the U.S., but they must buy foreign, largely Chinese-made, handsets to do so, and many of them are too expensive for most Africans. Onyx says that, as a homegrown phone maker, it will boost local employment and build affordable smartphones—it says it can build a phone with a camera and a gigabyte of memory for about $30.

But Onyx isn’t the first company to say it makes affordable phones in Africa, by Africans, and for Africans. Last year the startup VMK purportedly opened a plant in Brazzaville in Republic of Congo, where it was making, among other things, the Elikia line of smartphones.

But what VMK meant when it claimed its phones were “made In Africa” was up for interpretation. A piece in Quartz that ran before the plant opened claimed that the company was essentially buying up phones made in China, slapping a VMK brand on them, and selling them in Congo and Ivory Coast for a markup. Sources suggested that VMK didn’t hold any patents in Africa, and that there wasn’t nearly the level of local expertise necessary to produce such hardware.

For its part, Onyx Connect has said it will be importing much of the electronic guts of its phones from factories in China. But the company says that design work for the phones, as well as their cases and research and development for future models, will all take place on African soil. Onyx also says it is in talks with Google and other big multinational tech firms to potentially branch out into laptops, tablets, and other devices down the road.

Either way, the fuzziness around the question of who is producing devices that are truly made in Africa—not to mention the fact that opening a phone factory constitutes news in and of itself—highlights the need for significant further investment in local education, R&D, and entrepreneurship. Onyx Connect may indeed represent a big step forward for a rising region—but there are many more steps still to take.

(Read more: Bloomberg, Quartz, “Facebook Has a Plan to Take Cellular Data to the Sticks,” “Facebook’s Plans to Bring Flying Internet to Everyone Aren’t Going So Well”)

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