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Zimbabwe's Swav gaining in African handset market

Expands as regional players fight wave of low-cost handhelds from China

Despite the increasing number of imported and highly subsidized Chinese-made mobile handsets, Zimbabwe's only phone manufacturing company, Swav, is gaining ground in the African market.

Launched in 2010, the company is now exporting to East Africa's largest telecom markets, Kenya and Nigeria in West Africa, as well as Angola in Southern Africa, with plans under way to expand into several other African countries.

Although the markets in Kenya and Angola are recording limited success, the company is selling about 100,000 handsets in Nigeria every month. Nigeria is Africa's largest telecom market by investment and subscriptions.

The Swav line of products includes Smartphones sold under the Swav brand on the Android platform. The Android phones have touch screens, GPS, Wi-Fi, camera and 3G services.

As Swav steps up production, competition in the supply and sale of the handsets is expected to be stiff as the Zambian mobile manufacturing company M-Tel is also targeting the Eastern Western and Southern African markets, including Zimbabwe.

However, both companies are threatened with the influx of Chinese hndsets, sold cheaply in many countries in Africa. Efforts by the Zambia government to block the entry of the phones into the Zambian market have so far proved unsuccessful, threatening M-Tel with closure.

"The only way to put the Chinese phones out of the market in the region is for the two companies to manufacture high quality but affordable phones. Otherwise they will be forced to close," said Edith Mwale, telecom analyst from Africa Center for ICT Development.

Swav CEO Munyaradzo Gwatidzo has said the company is working at addressing price issues. The company's target, Gwatidzo said, is to make products that are relevant to Africa and try to come up with apps that are customized for the region.

The company intends to use Nigeria as a launch pad for other West African markets including Ghana and Ivory Coast while plans are also under way to set up offices in South African and Angola in order decentralize its distribution network.

Unlike the Zambian government, which increased customs duty on foreign manufactured phones to 15 percent from 5 percent in a bid to encourage local production of phones, the Zimbabwean government has refused to do so.

Meanwhile, M-tel Chairman Mohammed Seedat has said plans to export phones to the Southern African region have been put on hold because many African countries have not been spared from the influx of heavily subsidized mobile phones.

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