THE telecommunications system is vital in our everyday lives but may be a challenging market to infiltrate. This system transmits signals, words, sounds, writing, signs and images over radio, wire, or optical lines, making it an essential part of everyday life.
The usage of technology and telecommunication allows individuals and businesses to exchange information. Without these things, society cannot function, as most of the world relies on them. The digital world has become a universal language that everyone can understand no matter where they live.
Tapping into this space to create a device that caters to the African market, Sifiso Lukhele, founder and CEO of Lukhele Mobile, which started as a mobile device company with its primary focus on manufacturing and marketing mobile devices with FINTECH capability.
The company has now evolved onto the Network side as a channel partner to CommScope, Mavenir and Diplomat Communication.
Telecommunications has been part of Lukhele’s adult life since he started working at MTN South Africa in 1998.
“As a service-oriented person, I have always believed that as mobile networks evolved, there have been mobile devices from each continent except Africa, and I set out to correct that,” he said.
Lukhele said he recognised that although there are several African-born mobile devices, such as Mobicel and Mara phones, he still believed there was nothing in the brands that tells you that they are African, and he set out to correct that.
“I’ve been involved in maintaining mobile networks all around the African continent, I noticed that there was a need for low-cost smart devices and also a low density in financially inclusive solutions, and I decided to make the solution, and I sought to create a solution by an African for Africans,” he said.
Lukhele Mobile was conceptualised in 2013 due to the complexities of making an affordable device capable of financial transactions. They had a soft launch of Lukhele Mobile online in 2018 to convince mobile network operators that the product’s name was not too ethnic and the market would embrace it.
“The market I started with was in eSwatini, where I had the privilege of growing up, and they embraced the brand,” Lukhele said.
Lukhele Mobiles phones come standard with support for 2G/3G & 4G. Their flagship product, Lukhele Mobile L7, comes with an 8 000mAh power bank to mitigate the intermittent power supply experienced in Africa. Their mid-range product, the Lukhele Mobile L6, has a processor that minimises data spending by scaling down on images and video sizes.
Their entry-level product, the Lukhele Mobile L5, needs charging only once a week. The company plans to engage with the right people, on the right channel, at the right time to stimulate conversation and amplify positive word of mouth about Lukhele Mobile.
Lukhele said what makes his offering different from similar phone companies is its capability to communicate with a prepaid meter, be it electricity or water, via the National IOT Network (Patent Pending), coupled with its FINTECH capabilities at an affordable price.
The company faced a significant challenge in this journey: finding a suitable manufacturing partner willing to travel. The second challenge was the research and development journey to realise all the companies’ capabilities at targeted price points.
In the years 2020, 2021, and 2022, the company struggled due to the global pandemic and the global chipset shortage delayed their final testing stage. Another challenge they have gone through is finding funding, which is a curse to most South African start-ups.
“As funding funds were created to service specific categories and our product spanned FINTECH, ICT and utilities so it has been a challenge finding a funder that was willing to go through the journey with us, and we have survived through donor funding which has helped us cover about 25% of our funding needs,” he said.
The phone is not yet available but will be available from their US-based manufacturer at the end of October and early November. They will produce “quite a lot of marketing material and hype” in September to stimulate the market at their launch in November.
Lukhele said it was important for the company to be 100% black-owned to obtain their donor funds as they have benefited from the B-BBEE Enterprise and supplier development funds from different companies in their bid to grow and progress in the South African economy.
Paying it forward, Lukhele said, “the actual product was initiated as a way of giving back and our slogan ‘Take Back Tomorrow’”, inspired by the need for Africans to realise that they are the masters of their destinies.
“By taking back tomorrow, today we can do something that helps us realise what we want to achieve, and access to the internet is only the beginning of how a villager can access information about the world from wherever they are,” he said.
Lukhele Mobiles are those enablers. For job creation, the company’s mid to long-term goal is to have the components of the phone manufactured in one of the SADC countries and assembled and packaged in South Africa.
Through their after-sales service, they can train repairers to assist in job creation for at least 50 000 jobs spanning the ecosystem. The company is finalising their specs for three phones to be available on June 1.