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Tycoon Ashish J.Thakkar opens Africa’s first smartphone factory in Rwanda

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Mara Phones being the first-ever manufactured smartphones in Africa have been designed in partnership with Google as part of the Android One Program.

Mara Phones, a subsidiary company of the Mara Group has opened its first factory in Rwanda as the company hopes to pioneer a brand of African-made smartphones.

Ashish J. Thakkar, 38, is the founder of Mara Group, a Dubai-based, African-focused conglomerate with interests in the technology, financial services, manufacturing, real estate & agriculture industries.

His high tech smartphone manufacturing plant is located in Kigali’s Special Economic Zone, Rwanda and has employed over 200 people to manufacture high-tech smartphones for the local market and further afield.

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Mara Phones factory in Kigali

Rwandan President Paul Kagame Monday officiated the launch of Mara Phones manufacturing plant, which will make smartphones in the country and has the capacity to manufacture more than 2 million smartphones in a year.

The Rwandan President commended the drive towards affordable smartphones while opening the ceremony, and underlined the need to boost the adoption of high-tech products in his country.

“The Mara Phone joins a growing list of high-quality products that are made in our country… It is another milestone on our journey to high-tech, ‘made-in-Rwanda’ industry.”

President Kagame
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“The smartphone is no longer a luxury item, it is rapidly becoming a requirement of everyday life,” he said.

“That trend is bound to increase in the years to come as more and more services migrate to digital platforms. We want to enable many more Rwandans to use smartphones. The cost and quality is very important and the introduction of Mara Phones will put smartphone ownership within reach of more Rwandans.”

President Kagame was also quoted saying in a series of tweets that the introduction of Mara Phones will put smartphone ownership within the reach of more Rwandans.

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CEO Ashish J. Thakkar also speaking at the launch said: “We realized a few years ago that to create a positive social impact on our continent and in emerging markets, we need to have high quality and affordable smartphones. That’s when we came up with Mara Phones.”

Thakkar commended his new factory as “historic” due to its position as the first smartphone manufacturing plant on the continent.

Feature phones which use USSD technology to access digital services characterize the bulk of the market, which is a general trend across the continent.

Currently, smartphone penetration in Rwanda stands at around 15% with the most basic TECNO and Samsung models sold at $40 and $70 respectively.

With two models of the Mara phones on sale for $159 and $229, the Android phones are hoping to compete with these Asian manufacturers, Tecno, and Samsung who currently dominate Africa’s markets. Although at a considerably higher price, critics are skeptical the Mara Phone will make a dent in the local market.

However thanks to partnerships with local banks and telecommunications firms, the Mara Group has created a financial model that allows users to pay for their phones over a period of two years.

Mara Phones

Fortunately, the Mara Group has a long history in Rwanda thanks to its 20% stake in the pan-African banking group Atlas Mara, which was co-founded in 2013 by Thakkar and the former CEO of Barclays Bob Diamond.

In 2015, the group acquired a majority share in the Banque Populaire du Rwanda. At the moment, Atlas Mara is scaling back its pan-African ambitions through a share swap with the rapidly expanding Kenyan lender, Equity Bank. The Nairobi-based commercial bank acquired 100% of Atlas Mara’s operations in Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania along with 62% of the Banque Populaire du Rwanda. 

At the closing plenary of the Africa Investment Forum, convened by the African Development Bank in Johannesburg, Thakkar, the young entrepreneur received an enthusiastic reception as he presented the prototype of a made-in-Africa phone for the first time.

The Mara Group’s CEO said that Africans and others will be able to buy a phone made in Africa – initially Rwanda and South Africa. The new #maraphone was among the highlights of the conference that drew over 1000 participants from development financial institutions across Africa and the world, along with businesses and high-level government officials, attending to conclude investments for African development.

At the conference in Johannesburg, Ashish Thakkar said that none of the 400 million smartphones being used across Africa are manufactured on the continent.”We are the consumers, but we’re not the value creators”, he said.

In Africa, we don’t manufacture anything,” said Thakkar.

“We assemble in a few countries, but we don’t manufacture anything. We are the consumers but not the producers. When we first told people about Mara Phone they told us we were crazy and that it wasn’t possible. Our true belief in Africa, particularly Rwanda, is a dream come true. This is a historic moment which will help shift the narrative for Rwanda, Africa and the rest of the world.”

Mara Phones is set to launch its second factory in South Africa later this month on the 17th of October.

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Feritter Owich
Feritter Owich
I am the mobile editor here. I cover apps, smartphones and anything else related to consumer electronics. Reach me at [email protected]

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