Data consumption for mobile internet access is everywhere a hot topic, but even more in emerging markets where the infrastructure is either in bad shape or almost inexistant. Rather than waiting for Facebook or Google to deploy a high-speed internet with the help of solar drones or balloons respectively, local manufacturers try to find other solutions.

Solo Phone, a smartphone made for Nigeria

During our visit in Lagos, the economic capital of Nigeria, we took some time to discuss with the team of Solo phones, a manufacturer based there. They have designed quite an interesting solution to allow both an affordable access to the smartphone technology (which accounts for about 10% of the phones in Africa), and a new business model.

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Solo launched about a year ago, with a commercial launch in November 2013. Two smartphones are offered for $80 and $150, which puts them on the average of entry-level smartphones. The team behind it includes former executives from the telecom industry such as HTC or Ericsson, so it’s more than just a startup with a cool idea.

The device itself looks not perfect, it’s still the first version, and 4 more devices are supposed to be offered before the end of 2014. The true innovation is precisely not in the device, but in the content, and the way this content can be accessed by users.

Two innovations for Solo: content consumption and data accessibility

Data access is both unreliable and super-expensive in Nigeria, and you cannot not count on broadband as well with only 6-8% penetration. To provide its users with their content, Solo has set up a network of hotpspots, located where the phones themselves are sold. This system allows anyone near the hotspot to use data consumption for free. I saw how for instance a full-length Nollywood movie could be downloaded in not even 30 seconds.

The other innovation lies in the business model. Rather than to tease with small content and have customer subscribe to a streaming plan like in the West or to download song by song, Solo offers to any of its users all of the music for free, to begin with. They have signed deals with the main music labels and have about 20m songs accessible through the hotspots. All for free. To stream or to download.

Where Solo can make money is with the video-on-demand platform, where you can rent movies (mostly local Nollywood for now) for about $1. The file is accessible for two weeks, and can be downloaded for no data cost at any of the hotpost of the brand, about 45 of them have been deployed for the first few months.

What’s interesting is the future of Solo. It’s pretty clear that the free music and cheap movies model is a good magnet to get users on board. Next content will be about health, education, banking, with premium services. The mobile is truly seen as a distribution platform, hence the effort put to recruit users at a low price.

Smartphone made for the emerging markets: a new business where Samsung and Apple are less able to compete

As we saw in our wrap-up of Mobile West Africa conference, this type of “local manufacturer” is gaining a lot of ground in emerging markets compared to the usual suspects such as Apple, Samsung and the likes. In India and China, the top local players have already bigger market shares than Apple, and will most likely beat Samsung collectively in a few years time.

It means there’s a whole bunch of both hardware manufacturers, content providers and service creators that will pop up to serve users on this type of mobile, far from the business model that make the headlines in the developed world.