The African continent is quickly shaping up into the battle ground for some of the world’s leading consumer internet companies.
Much has been documented about Google’s pioneering work in the African internet space with its focus on ecosystem and local content development.
In what appears to be more or less a “statement of intent,” Chinese search giant, Baidu signed a co-branding browser deal with France-Telecom Orange to launch a co-branded browser for low cost smartphone users across Africa and the Middle East.
This is news because this is the first time that Baidu is making a strategic partnership of this scale on the continent. With its significant number of African users, Orange, which according to the Financial Times, has an estimated 81 million customers across Africa and the Middle East seems a worthy and credible ally to partner with.
Nicholas Jotischky, Principal Analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media weighed in succinctly on the development when he said:
“Chinese manufacturers of low-cost smartphones are viewing the African device market as one of great potential. The tie-up between a Chinese device and Chinese internet browser is one that is perhaps helping to drive such a partnership [between Orange and Baidu]…”
Baidu has in the past struck partnership deals with web developer, smartphone manufacturer, Huawei, which is currently making waves on the continent with low cost smartphone brands like the Huawei Ideos X1. It is unclear though if it will extend these partnerships to the African market.
Informa has some interesting stats on the future growth in Africa’s mobile content market as its industry matures.
For instance, annual non-voice end-user service revenues for Africa is estimated to hit $26bn by 2016, up from $7bn annually in 2011.
The company asserts that enhanced data compression capabilities (up to 90% of compression), and one-click access to web-based apps and internet services through the Orange-Baidu browser will provide a more affordable and richer browsing experience for customers across Africa and the Middle East.
Orange had earlier offered free access to Wikipedia by waiving data charges for African and Middle Eastern users.
“We want to make the mobile internet as ubiquitous as possible as fast as possible,” said Xavier Perret, head of partnerships at Orange.
According to Perret, while mobile phones are hugely popular in Africa, most people use very basic mobiles or feature phones rather than the more sophisticated smartphones seen in the US and Europe.
If this partnership is indeed a statement of intent to take Africa seriously from a commercial standpoint by Baidu, it is indicative of what its long-term strategy on the continent might be. A mobile-first strategy focused on the continent’s low end smartphone users might be at play. However, given inMobi’s recent shutdown of its local African offices, it is clear that a serious interest in the continent’s mobile advertising space would need a lot more than a statement of intent for a viable, long term business to be built.