Alpesh Patel told me to meet him at Raleigh’s Cigar Bar at the Westin in Cape Town. I’m excited and kind of psyched I pulled it off: it’s almost impossible to pin down this busy pan-African entrepreneur, the man who has taken the continent’s market by storm with the first African mobile phone brand.
Since the launch of his company Mi-fone in 2008, Alpesh has sold over 1.5 million handsets, catering for the “bottom of the pyramid” African consumer and generating $30 million in revenues – pretty impressive stuff, this is sure to be a very interesting meeting!
I find him sitting on a comfortable Chesterfield sofa in the bar, a glass of cognac in one hand, his phone in the other. “Great to meet you!” I say as I sit down. I’m so glad you could fit in a meeting.”
“My pleasure,” says Alpesh . “What can I get you to drink?”
After I order a Cape Cod Islander, we talk a bit about Motorola, where Alpesh worked as the director of sales before heading up his own company. “I helped sell 5 million Motorola devices in three years, generating $500m in revenue,” he says as he sips his cognac. “But none of that was reinvested into Africa.”
After he left the company, he got offers from several competitors. “But I refused,” he says dryly. “I thought to myself: why should I run around fostering relationships across the continent for the benefit of a big brand that may very well implement a policy shift in some ivory tower somewhere in the West and pull the rug from under our feet?” He gives me a penetrating look.
“I thought, why can’t we Africans use Western education, our corporate experience and put it to work for ourselves?” As he gets on a roll, his voice gets louder and more determined. “What is stopping me from giving African consumers the type of phones, prices and service they need?” With fire in his eyes he puts his glass down on the table, and then laughs.
“Wow, so it wasn’t just another business venture!” I say. “You really were trying to change the structure of the market.”
“That’s right. I have always believed that Africans are best served by Africans themselves and Motorola may have been the first mobile device brand in Africa, but Mi-Fone is the first African mobile devices brand. Our focus is 110% African.”
“Didn’t you ever have doubts, wonder whether it would work?” I ask.
“I put most of my life savings into Mi-Fone as start-up capital – you could say that I was my own angel investor.”
“Wow, a big risk then,” I say.
“Well, it was a gamble and it still is, although the odds are much better that we will go all the way.”
“So did people buy into the vision?” I ask. “How did your friends and colleagues react?”
“They all thought I was mad,” Alpesh laughs. “How would I ever be able to compete with the big brands, but also with the cheap substandard Chinese phones flooding the market? How were we going to market the brand when we had zero marketing dollars?”
“Yeah, how did you do that?” I ask.
“Well I didn’t have the answers, but I just asked distributors and clients to try us out. A lot of people thought we were bullshitting or running some kind of pie in the sky business. At every stage we have had to work three times as hard just to prove who we are and why are doing what we do.”
“It’s an amazing story – really incredible,” I say as I finish my Cape Cod Islander “So how do you envision the brand’s future?”
“Mi-Fone is a people’s brand. Our message is all about aspiration… within reach. We are not selling a device. We are offering a lifestyle that Africans can resonate with. Who knows? If we play the game right, at least 200 million people will have a Mi-fone brand in a few years time!”
Clara Chinwe Okoro, Curator for CoolBrands in Africa
© 2013 CoolBrands – Around the World in 80 Brands
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