Why does every other Zimbabwean have a smartphone?

Rufaro Madamombe Avatar

I initially wanted to write an article titled ‘Why smart watches failed’ but then as the team and I discussed, it turned out that they may have not necessarily failed but that maybe there’s something more at play when it comes to adoption of technologies in Zimbabwe. The discussion then ended with the question ‘why does every other Zimbabwean have a smartphone?’.

Back in the day when Econet launched the 3G network, I’ve been told that some people were really not happy as they wondered why the telecommunications company was bringing this. A lead journalist at that time even said that 3G was a waste of time on expensive elitist technology that is of little practical value to the majority”.

I can understand why they’d say that: Zimbabwe has been in a socio-economic crisis for a long time hence people couldn’t even afford a smartphone which they needed to use the 3G network and it didn’t seem like this would change soon at that time perhaps. However, 3G did succeed. Zimbabweans started buying smartphones at a rate that possibly even the optimists could have hoped for when 3G was launched.

So why did people start to buy smartphones?

I grew up with in the post 3G launch years (yes I am quite young) and therefore I am quite out of my depth to attempt an answer to the question why smart phones were adopted at the rate they were adopted. I posed this question to the Techzim team.

The resounding answer to the question: It’s because of WhatsApp. When a person went to a shop to buy a smartphone, the frequently asked question was ‘can this device do WhatsApp?’ No one really cared to know if this phone or the other was a ‘smart phone.’ All they knew they wanted was phone inoita WhatsApp (a WhatsApp capable device).

Why was WhatsApp so important?

The application solved a need that most people had. They wanted to communicate and be a part of a social community. Now someone could argue that we could already communicate through SMSes. However, with Whatsapp, you could send more messages than you could on SMS when you bought a dollar of airtime. The application allowed the sharing of images and videos in a simple way and at a reasonable cost compared to MMS which never really took off in Zimbabwe.

We don’t know who the early adopters of WhatsApp in Zim were but all that was needed was the first few thousand people and network effects kicked in. Once one used the app and enjoyed the experience they would promote it to their friends, neighbors and all so they could communicate with more people conveniently on the platform. End result: around 6 million resident Zimbabweans on WhatsApp and an equally impressive number of Zimbabweans in the diaspora using the application too.

It can’t all be because of WhatsApp, right?

Of course, people just didn’t buy smartphones because they wanted to be on WhatsApp. Smartphones also started to become more affordable as different manufacturers started to make them and sell them at a cheaper price like Huawei and other Chinese companies. This made it possible for more people to own a smartphone regardless of whether it was ‘original’ or not.

I don’t know how all this could answer the question, what makes a tech product or development succeed in the Zimbabwean market? My initial question remains unanswered as well: why did smart watches not take off in Zimbabwe?




  1. Beaton Nyamapanda

    This narrative would have been more complete had you included the period when everyone used to use a mbudzi phone, the advent of camera phones and the switch to smartphones and the reason why. Doing so would have given you more answers than WhatsApp and cost as to why people in Zimbabwe use smartphones.
    But maybe its just me and my thinking

    1. Rufaro Madamombe

      Hi, thanks for the feedback. I may have missed some reasons as I grew up with smartphones so I was using the input I had received from other people. However, it’s a good thing you responded because it gives us a chance to discuss and see what was the reason that the majority adopted smartphones. Do you think it’s because of camera phones?

      1. Beaton Nyamapanda

        Not necessarily that.

        The journey for mobile phones started a long time ago before smartphones. For example, when most people got introduced to phones, all we had access to was SMS and calling and a few lousy games on our phones. Most screens were tiny and monochrome. Remember the Nokias? The torch phones?
        If you had a little bit of money, you could buy a phone with a camera and Bluetooth. As time went one, most of the phones had cameras and Bluetooth which we used to send each other pictures.

        Back then in Zimbabwe, there was no mobile internet. If you wanted internet, you went into a cafe or used internet from home on your laptop or desktop PC. Most phones did not have WiFi capabilities so despite whichever phone you had, you didn’t get to use the internet features.

        Then Econet decided to introduce mobile internet. When it started as you rightly said, people did not know what it meant and started making ridiclous statements and predictions as to why that was a bad idea. They were wrong as history has shown. With time, people realized that you could do a lot with internet on your phone. And that coincided with the smartphone boom.

        Phones were becoming better and better. They had more features, they had more storage space and computing capacity. With the introduction of the IPhone and later Android and its whole group of phones, people could do a lot more with their phones. They could download apps. They could access their emails from their phones. They could now communicate more easily and in real time. Think of Skype/Google Hangouts/MSN Messenger on your phone back then.

        Other apps became popular as well. Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter etc. These apps worked very well on mobile apps. Smartphones became cheaper. And China decided to benefit from all excitement. They started making cheap knockoffs of these smartphones. The good thing is although they poor build quality and poorly marketed, they ran the same operating systems as the expensive smartphones. But Zimbabweans didn’t care. As long as they could install their favorite apps, they were happy. and that’s how every Zimbabwean as per your original heading has a smartphone.
        I think you get the idea, just lazy to write this in full. Same story, different starting points. That’s what I meant

        1. Rufaro Madamombe

          Yeah very true. Thanks again.

        2. Imi Vanhu Musadaro

          I don’t remember these predictions that mobile internet was I bad idea. 3G came way later, you could use the internet via GPRS/EDGE. Even when 3G was introduced, most of the coverage was still GPRS with pockets of 3G data connectivity here and there. In the beginning, Econet mobile internet wasn’t available by default, you had to get it enabled and there always was a line of people getting this done, so one wonders where these alleged naysayers you are talking about came from.

        3. Imi Vanhu Musadaro

          I don’t remember these predictions that mobile internet was I bad idea. 3G came way later, you could use the internet via GPRS/EDGE. Even when 3G was introduced, most of the coverage was still GPRS with pockets of 3G data connectivity here and there. In the beginning, Econet mobile internet wasn’t available by default, you had to get it enabled and there always was a line of people getting this done, so one wonders where these alleged naysayers you are talking about came from. There was keen interest in mobile internet, as a early adopter the Econet APN would change several times and one needed to keep abreast with the currently working ones.

      2. RsTade

        Out of touch with reality. (Smart watches are you serious? ) That is what your article makes you come across as. Sorry but that’s what it looks like from my end.
        Smart watches are a tool looking for a purpose trying to fulfill a need that doesn’t exist.
        Whereas Smartphones fulfilled a purpose and a need. Zimbabwean people like to do two things a lot. SAVE MONEY (sometimes to ridiculous levels) and TALK (sometimes talking total nonsense)
        But think back to those days $1 would get you about 10 SMS messages of about 150 characters each (I actually had to check it’s been so long since I used sms) whilst on WhatsApp you could write out whole manifestos and still have data left to do a bit of light browsing. In those days WhatsApp was a revelation now as long as you where both in places with network you could message to your hearts content and it was fast, oh so very fast compared to sms messages you no longer had to worry if that week Econet nd Netone where fighting each other your messages would always go through non of that lost messages nonsense. And it cost the same amount to message someone in Bulawayo as to message someone in London or Johannesburg, no cross network charges. And for the light browsing Opera mini to the rescue! This was making that dollar stretch!
        But in order to get on to WhatsApp you needed a smartphone, but that was considered as a worthwhile investment since the benefits where so obvious.Peer pressure was also a part of the reason telling people that you where not on WhatsApp was telling everyone that you lived in a cave and thought the earth was flat. ( I have this friend that stuck to his guns refusing to let go of his LG kp500 till I basically strong armed him into buying my Samsung Galaxy mini by telling him that he could forget about me smsing him because it cost me too much money….. Now he is the the Group Admin for several WhatsApp groups)
        So Smartphones fulfilled a purpose and a need but no one really knows what to do with a smart watch

      3. RsTade

        Even the boss of huawei doesn’t really know what to do with smart watches. Even though his company manufactures them

  2. opolopo

    no disrespect but dont you think this question is kinda silly? its just like why do people watch movies on blu ray dvds now, why ddnt they stick to reels and video tapes….simple answer : technology has improved and moved forward same as for cellphones

    1. Imi Vanhu Musadaro

      I agree!! It’s like attributing everyone having a flatscreen TV to DSTV or Netflix. Technology is changing and becoming cheaper, that’s all. No-one buys those CRT TV’s anymore, because LCD, LED, Plasma technologies e.t.c.. have become cheaper. Same reason why every other person in urban areas has a laptop, reduction in the price of technology.

  3. Isaac

    Back then in 2010 when 3g was luanched I used to pay $25 every month crazy hey!

  4. Basil Mdluli

    Technology progression. Simple. No point in trying to split the atom here with a rather shallow analysis. Technology simply moves forward. Smart phones are a progression in the evolution of the mobile phone. It would be similar to asking the question why people have adopted email instead of using faxes, telegrammes, or whatever archaic technologies you can think of.