Can Feature Phones Survive Without WhatsApp?

Farai Mudzingwa Avatar
Mobile Phone - SMS - Zimbabwe, Mobile Penetration, SMS US hacked

Feature phones or twumbudzi as they are commonly known in Zimbabwe are interesting devices. Whilst most people believe feature phones will be and are currently being obliterated by smartphones, the reality on the ground is actually more interesting than you would think.

What’s what?

First thing is first, what are feature phones? Basically, these are low-end mobile devices lacking the advanced functionality of a smartphone. Within these phones are two groups of phones. Some have the ability to access the internet (or at least an extremely compromised version of that) and store music. Some even have cameras. In the second group are dumb phones that only text and call, with little functionality beyond that. For all intents and purposes, we won’t differentiate between the two because most consumers don’t. As long as a phone can’t do what a smartphone does, it’s a feature phone – unless of course its a smart feature phone (more on that later)…

One of the biggest advantages offered by smartphones is the ability to run apps – more complex apps at least. In Zimbabwe, it seems that the trend is that consumers want phones that can run WhatsApp over anything else because of the benefits offered by WhatsApp. Those include a faster and inexpensive (relatively) tool to communicate.

All this can’t help but make me (and a lot others) feel like there’s a dark cloud hovering over feature phones. But sometimes feelings and assumptions are flat out wrong. The first thing we don’t consider is which consumers want smartphones and which ones don’t.

In this article we will look at where the biggest markets are for feature phones, how big WhatsApp is in those markets, the use cases for feature phones, From all of this we will try to make a verdict on whether or not WhatsApp or a lack thereof will result in the extinction of the feature phone.

Why are people using feature phones in 2019?

There are a number of factors that are still motivating people to use feature phones over smartphones.

One of the most common factors is battery life and that’s something Zimbabweans can relate to. Last year, I visited Jerera and a significant number of people said they preferred feature phones over smartphones because electricity supply was too inconsistent for users to actually reliably use smartphones. This is the case in many other African countries -a 2014 World Bank report claimed that around 600 million Africans didn’t have access to electricity- and that means in these places feature phones will be relevant for the foreseeable future.

Because of battery life, feature phones have become a secondary device for many users even in places with decent access to electricity. Feature phones outshine smartphones so much in this category that for someone looking to be accessible all the time having a feature phone as a backup to their smartphone is a no-brainer.

Another factor that leads to people buying feature phones instead of smartphones is pricing. Feature phones are much cheaper than smartphones and with that being the case, in markets where disposable income is hard to come by – feature phones continue to be relevant.

There are more than three billion people across the world who live on an income of less than US$2.50 per day. This segment can neither afford a smartphone nor the data services demanded by the growing advancement in smartphone use-cases. Thus, a feature phone, coupled with basic mobile services has been the go-to offering for these users to communicate and connect. Most of these users are prevalent across Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America

Tarun PathakAssociate Director at Counterpoint Research

Feature phones are also far-less intimidating than smartphones which have seemingly complicated touch interfaces. For older and less tech-savvy users – these devices continue to be more attractive than smartphones or at least don’t come with the learning curve of owning a smartphone.

man looking at phones, phones, cellphones
The complexity and pricing of smartphones result in some consumers opting for simpler mobile devices

Feature phones are also great in certain settings. According to CounterPoint Research “industry segments like construction require rugged devices with technologies like PTT (Push-To-Talk) to cope with the hostile environment. Feature phones offer a viable alternative for this segment.”

Where are the biggest markets for feature phones?

Now that we’ve established why people use (and in some cases prefer feature phones), we need to understand where feature phones are being bought and try to establish how big WhatsApp is in these markets;

  • Analysts expect that 400 million feature phones will be sold globally this year.  
  • India is the largest market for feature phones and Jio with a market share of 21% was the overall market leader across all handset types in 2018. Feature phones now account for 56% of the Indian mobile phone market
  • As of March, Nigeria was declared the 3rd biggest market for feature phones.
  • Continentally, Asia, the Middle East and Africa are the 3 continents where feature phones continue to grow significantly

How big is WhatsApp in these places?

Well, it’s well documented that India is WhatsApp’s biggest market with around 400 million users. This has already affected how feature phones are sold to the Indian public. Smart feature phones that are 4G enabled and have capabilities to run WhatsApp (such as the Jio Phone) have become very popular alternatives. In India, it seems pretty clear that the feature phones that don’t offer WhatsApp compatibility are massively threatened by these emerging devices. This might be more specific to the Indian context, however, since India has the cheapest data in the world.

WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in the world. A phone that can run the application has an advantage over one that can’t

Nigeria and Africa

In Nigeria, WhatsApp is used by 53% of internet users meaning around 50 million Nigerians are on WhatsApp. Unfortunately for feature phones, the second-hand device market in Nigeria was estimated to be around $13 billion last year. This means there might not be a place for smart feature phones in Nigeria and in Africa as a whole.

Feature phones will remain relevant in the country because of Nigeria’s power crisis along with the fact that the majority of the country doesn’t have access to the internet.

PS: Whilst tried and tested in India the smart feature phone is yet to prove itself in Africa for one reason – the amount you can buy a smart feature phone can also net you a second-hand smartphone and for a number of users it seems that’s more attractive although we don’t have hard numbers to prove this as fact.

A second-hand smartphone will appeal more than smart feature phones in some markets

In the rest of Africa, internet usage is still under 50% which means that feature phones will continue to be a viable option and for as long as problems such as electricity shortages and lack of connectivity outside urban areas persist the demand for feature phones without access to WhatsApp will remain healthy.

Most popular messaging apps (as of 2018). North America doesn’t care much for WhatsApp

With only 192 million (of 1.2 billion) people inhabiting the African continent on social media, there’s a lot of room for both feature phones and smartphones to grow. That figure, however, is a reflection of the maturity of African mobile markets and it’s safe to bet feature phones will continue to be a big part of the African mobile experience in the medium-term.

What’s the verdict?

A few things have to happen for feature phones to become extinct (or at least a niche market);

  • The cost of smartphones has to drop significantly over the next few years. How significantly? Well enough to compete with feature phones on dollar value for the poorest to even begin considering them.
  • Internet connectivity has to become universal. For consumers in the poorest parts of the world, internet connectivity is a pipe dream. With around 25% of Africans having access to the internet, those who don’t won’t necessarily need a smartphone or WhatsApp until that is rectified.

Whilst those with access to WhatsApp (financial & geographical access) will probably continue to adopt smartphones as their primary computing devices, there is still a huge market for feature phones even without access to WhatsApp



What’s your take?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Richard James Chikumba

    Well done research on Feature phones versus Smartphones

    1. Farai Mudzingwa


  2. The Principal

    I was shocked when I met a “big guy” without a smart phone. I still believe ALL business persons must have at least one. He says he doesn’t want disturbances. He is a VERY BUSY man.

    Here is the challenge: there are many things he can do on his phone, in his office that he still has to do manually. Come on guys this is 2019 why should anyone who can afford a high spec smart phone still go to the bank to fill in an RTGS transfer form? And then fail to fulfill other important tasks on illusion of being busy.

    Battery isn’t an issue to anyone who can afford a good power bank, after all, like my “big” friend.

    1. Imi Vanhu Musadaro

      One would assume that with your SMARTphone and ALL the time you’ve saved, you are a “bigger guy”, but that probably isn’t the case. The point is, it’s not the phone you use or the time you think you saved, that makes you money. For all you know, he uses his trip to the bank to think about his strategy and business opportunities. Meanwhile you are twidling away at your smartphone “saving time”.

      Finally, don’t “spend” others people money for them in your head, spend yours. Proirities differ, that’s why we find people who have USD $1,300 ultra-smartphones catching kombis/ZUPCOs.

      1. Farai Mudzingwa

        🤣🤣 “don’t spend other people’s money” pakaipa

      2. The Principal

        This comment carries enough venom to kill 1000 elephants kkkkkkkkkk.
        Probably written by a BROKE chap, after losing all his pay in soccer betting.
        Listen, boy, No serious business person strategizes while hopping, behind the wheel, from bank to bank to fill in RTGS forms and other manual tasks he can easily automate or delegate. I don’t blame you. You can’t know this if you haven’t run even a tuckshop before.

        Not all big guys are big because of “strategy” as you think. I thought you knew.
        For some, it’s a reluctance and fear of adopting new technologies (zvakauya vachembera kkk) and hence continue to do what they have always done.

        Fine he will be “strategizing.” Why then complain that the load is proving too much for him, sometimes failing to get a single weekend in a month with family??

        1. Imi Vanhu Musadaro

          Well, broke or not, my point still stands. Let him decide what to do with HIS money and HIS time.

          Even if he had a smartphone, would this mean he would spend more time with his family? Let’s be realistic, even in far fetched claims. Is there any sane person under the sun who has ever said, “I used to be so busy, but now I have my phone, I have so much more time to spend with my family.” No… Because, life is not that simple.

          FYI, I said “for all you know” to indicate a possibility, as I wasn’t stating a fact. Neither did I claim at any point, that all big guys (or any big guy for that matter) are big because they strategise. I do not know the guy at all, I am not a member of your elite “big guys” club.

          Anyway, how much time has your smartphone saved you today? And, did you do anything meaningful with that time besides post comments on TZ.

          Ndini wako,

          Tuckshop Apprentice

          1. Farai Mudzingwa

            Chiiko ipapa chamunoroverana ipapa!

  3. Bhinikwa

    We call them Ndorindori this side of the country. I bought my herd boy a brand new ndorindori & next thing he had swapped it with a very very very used smartphone. I felt cheated, he felt so upgraded.

    1. Farai Mudzingwa

      Ndorindori 🤣🤣 that’s a new one… Yeah the second hand market is quite interesting

  4. The Principal

    There are 2 things here.
    1. You need a feature phone for back up power due to complete reliance on Zesa.
    2. You cant afford data for 2 phones.
    Well, work hard one day you will understand you don’t need a mbudzi. Cash solves both problems.

    1. At least 1 car for charging on the go.

    2. Cash for data bundles

    3. A powerful power bank eg 30 000mAh.
    I don’t use a mbudzi. Rarely do I even need to use the power bank. With a good 4*4 I can reach any part of the country and charge in the car. Where the car can’t reach, the power bank comes in.

    Some things make sense when you are broke. Machazozvionawo maita cash kkkk ana Farai Mudzingwa and company.