The pioneers: 3 smartphones that ushered Android into the Kenyan market

The last 2 months have seen two of the most recent powerful Android smartphones from the top 2 Android device makers in the world go on pre-order in Kenya and officially start selling not long after. Pre-orders for Samsung’s latest and greatest smartphone, the Galaxy S8, opened on April 5th, 2017. A week later, pre-orders for Huawei’s high-end smartphone, the P10, also opened. The Galaxy S8 subsequently went on sale exactly a month later, on May 5th. Not to be left behind but a bit late to the party, Huawei followed suit on May 23rd by introducing the P10 to the Kenyan market.

Things have not always been this way.

I have been keenly following the mobile technology space in this country for nearly a decade now and have seen, first hand, the struggle. The real struggle.

For there to be such an expansive selection of expensive Android smartphones one can choose from if they wanted to spoil themselves or the many choices available to buyers on a budget, we had to start from somewhere. These 5 smartphones helped get things going back in the day:

1. Huawei U8220

The Huawei U8220 was the first Android smartphone to be launched in the Kenyan market. A product of the now strong relationship between Kenya’s largest mobile network operator, Safaricom, and its partner, Chinese device maker Huawei, the U8220 set out to upset the status quo of that day and age, Nokia’s N and E series and the BlackBerrys of yesteryears.

There is nothing one can write home about a device that only got to Nairobi in July 2010, a year after it was announced, packed a 3.5-inch 320 x 480 pixel display, a trackball to underscore the dominance of BlackBerry back then and the Chinese ambitions to upset it, meagre 192 megabytes of onboard storage, a 3.15 megapixel camera and Bluetooth 2.0. Nothing at all. But for the Kshs 27,000 (at Safaricom shops, it cost over Kshs 30,000 elsewhere) that was its starting price (I remember seeing the flyers for this device and wishing I could raise that amount overnight) back then, it was all an Android enthusiast could want that they could get locally.

Those that ever got to interact with this device (raises hand sheepishly) can confidently display the badge of honour inked on their chests that they came face to face with Android 1.5, Cupcake. Trust me, it wasn’t an exciting experience but it was just good enough to stir a lifelong passion for the platform.

2. Huawei VF845

The VF in the model number of this device stood for Vodafone, then the mother company of Safaricom which offered it as an exclusive, the first of several such exclusive devices that the Kenyan mobile network operator would have with its Chinese partner, Huawei.

That not many people seem to remember the U8220 as the pioneer Huawei Android smartphone in Kenya and the pioneer Android device in the country overall can be attributed to the quick availability of the VF845 shortly after the pricey U8220 hit the market. The VF845 undercut its elderly sibling by being cheaper by Kshs 10,000, a big deal back then and still a big deal today bearing in mind the tough economic times that Kenyans are going through right now.

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For Kshs 16,000, one got some better internal specifications than they did with the U8220 but still had to make do with a terribly inferior display, a 2.8-inch 240 x 320-pixel panel. It ran on Android 2.1, Eclair, packed more memory, 128MB RAM and 512MB internal storage complete with a dedicated expansion slot for a memory card, the same camera as the U8220 and an even smaller battery unit (1,200mAh compared to the U8220’s 1,500mAh unit).

The number of applications on the Google Play Store is fast approaching the 3 million mark. According to Google, there were 82 billion app downloads from the Play Store in the last one year. Back in 2010 when the VF845 was breaking the mold, the then Android Market had just over 60,000 applications. These were positioned as being of greater benefit to the Kenyan mobile device user than the then existing alternatives like the popular Nokia Ovi Store (we all had xxx@ovi.com email addresses… You have no idea how heavenly that was).

3. Huawei U8150 IDEOS

This is the smartphone that changed the smartphone landscape in Kenya.

Drawing lessons from the two upper-market segment-targeted Android smartphones that it had sold through its then new retail shops, Safaricom sought to bring to the market a device that would appeal to an even wider base. This would be achieved by halving the price of its last Android smartphone in the market, the VF845, and the inclusion of features that would appeal to the Kenyan consumer as well as promote its then nascent 3G network.

To do so, then Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph set off for Shenzhen, China, Huawei’s home, to personally oversee the production of what came to be popularly known as the IDEOS, the Huawei U8150. The device would sell as a variant in other markets like Japan, Australia and the US but it is its conquests in the Kenyan market that earned it the legendary status it has today.

IDEOS: the “ID” represents the industrial design-centric hardware platform, the “OS” represents the operating system as the core software platform, and the “E” symbolizes the evolution to mobile Internet.

The IDEOS was a hit with Kenyans. A month after it started selling in the country, the device singlehandedly captured 73% smartphone marketshare. Within 5 months, 60,000 units had already been sold according to GfK. It didn’t take long for the device to land in the hands of over 350,000 Kenyans making it the best selling smartphone of its time in the country.

For the first time ever, Kenyans had access to a quality affordable smartphone that made browsing the internet using Safaricom’s 3G network a breeze. Data bundles (remember that Kshs 8 for 10MBs bundle that was very popular?) had just come up a few months earlier. That it came in multiple colours (back covers, really) was a big plus since apparently, Kenyans do love their colours.

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For Kshs 8,500, its starting price, buyers got access to Android 2.2, Froyo, a free 1GB memory card to back up the meagre onboard storage, free Kshs 1,000 airtime from Safaricom, free 600MB data bundle, ability to connect to Wi-Fi (a very big deal back then), GPS (also a big deal), the indefatigable 3.15-megapixel sensor found in the VF845 and U8220 among other features that made the IDEOS a hard-to-resist package.

While I already knew my way around gadgets by the time the IDEOS was hitting the Kenyan market, it took the collective power of Caroline Mutoko and comedian Jalang’o in their KISS Big Breakfast show to whet my appetite for the IDEOS (I was a big fan of that show) and make me want to abandon Snaptu, which ran flawlessly on the Nokia C3. I hadn’t started following local blogs as religiously as I would start doing a few months after that. By then, I was still hooked to PC Magazine and, of course, TechCrunch, Mashable (when the Mash, as we called it, was actually a tech blog and not a new age hipster’s playground) and a few other Western tech-focused sites.

If I can look back in time for the one moment that I knew that I would be sticking with Android for years to come then it would be that morning in March 2011, 2 months after the IDEOS went on sale in Kenya, when I walked into the Safaricom Shop on Moi Avenue’s Rex House in Mombasa to get a mini SIM for the Huawei IDEOS which I had bought the previous evening at Safaricom’s only other shop in Mombasa back then, on Digo Road. It is the phone that fueled my interest in Android tinkering, programming and, ultimately, the reason why you’re reading this: writing about gadgets day in day out and penning informative reviews every once in a while.

Terrible camera and battery life, horrible lag and other nuisances of the device aside, the IDEOS is the straw that broke everyone else’s back and marked the beginning of the end for brands like Nokia in the Kenyan market, their other blunders like switching to tiled interfaces notwithstanding.

Long live the Huawei U8150 IDEOS!

Bonus: I did not wake up one day and start reviewing power gadgets like the Samsung Galaxy S8. I started here [read and laugh]. I wrote that review (which was first published here) in the basement computer laboratory of our department in my first week (orientation week) as a freshman in college. I started writing the first notes leading up to the 3,000+ word review of the IDEOS’ great descendant, the Huawei Mate 9, from which a part of this article was penned from, over 30,000 feet above the Mediterranean Sea, 6 years later. Strides.

Emmanuel Chenze

Let's just say I know my stuff. I have 7 years experience handling, tinkering with and then writing extensively about Android stuff. Sometimes it is exciting, sometimes it is not; things can get stale with nothing new to show but I live for each one of those moments. Have something Android-related that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze@androidkenya.com