BlackBerry in Africa, Amazon in Turkey: The Real Tech Action Is in Emerging Nations

Would you like to get your hands on a new BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) Z10 smartphone before it goes on sale in the U.S. on March 22?

Try South Africa. It’s been on the shelves there since March 1.

This is not to suggest that South Africa is a more important market than the US. Obviously, with a population of about 50 million compared to more than 300 million here, it’s not. But at least South Africans can say they’ve been loyal to the BlackBerry brand: It still holds a 50% share of the smartphone market there, years after it fell off the radar screens of US consumers.

“Think global” is a cliché of investing. But to do that, you need to consider the very different needs, tastes, and preoccupations that may drive consumers in other countries.

That’s particularly true of Internet technology stocks. Mobile devices and Internet connectivity are not just a status symbol in the emerging world. They’re enabling the economic revolution (and, in the case of Egypt, a political revolution as well.)

In some of these countries, they’re skipping whole generations of communications technology. They have little fixed-line infrastructure and never have had it, but they’re rolling out high-speed broadband as fast as they can.

The emerging countries are scattered around the globe, but they share some attributes, notably a youthful population, a growing middle class, and a huge appetite for job-creating businesses. They also tend to have hair-raising political and social challenges, but they are moving, in fits and starts, in the right direction.

Some technology companies are responding with products that are tailor-made for emerging countries or, in one case, a whole continent. Now that China has passed the US as the world’s biggest smartphone market, some Internet technology companies are looking for the next great target market, and they think Africa is it. Nokia (NYSE:NOK) has released a low-priced “entry-level” smartphone model, the Lumia 620, there. It will compete against a model called 4Africa, to be created by a partnership of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Chinese telecom Huawei Technologies. (Since the Lumia uses Windows 8 software, presumably Microsoft wins in either scenario.)

It’s not possible to have a deep knowledge of all, or even a few, of the emerging markets that have drawn investors’ interest. But a few anecdotes can be illuminating.

For example, take a quick look at some current events in the six countries known as the CIVETS—that is, Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa. This odd lot of countries was thrown together to signify their putative roles as leaders of the next generation of fast-growing economies.


Colombia has a population of more than 47 million, but only an estimated 6 million of them currently have Internet access.

In hopes of speeding up Internet adoption, the Colombian government has scheduled a 4G-spectrum auction for June. At least 13 companies have expressed interest in bidding so far, according to government sources.

In any case, Colombia is well on its way to shaking off its ugly history as the blood-drenched capital of the world drug trade. As it has become safer, Colombia has finally been able to exploit its enormous oil and coal reserves, not to mention its legal export crops like coffee and flowers.

Colombia’s economy is now the fourth largest in Latin American, and it expects to see 4.4% growth in 2013.


Indonesians must be amazingly sociable folks. This southeast Asian archipelago is currently in the top 10 list for its number of users of both Twitter and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB).

At the start of the century, only 1.8 million Indonesians had access to the Internet. Now the figure is 63 million.


The Vietnamese government has announced a plan to bring broadband access to 85% of the country by 2015.

The nation’s autocratic Communist leaders have a bit of a conflict of interest, though. They want the country to continue its rapid economic development, and Internet access is a key to that growth. But they definitely do not want to allow their citizens to complain, challenge authority, or protest government policies, all of which are natural human impulses after acquiring a cell phone and a decent connection.

So, the broadband access plan is going ahead, but the government is showing an unfortunate tendency to imprison bloggers who criticizes the state.


Egypt’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology has its work cut out for it. It’s trying to explain to a judge that it is just not possible to block YouTube.

The judge recently ordered the popular video sharing site banned in Egypt for 30 days for hosting “The Innocence of Muslims,” the offensive low-budget video that sparked riots in much of the Islamic world late last year.

YouTube blocked access to the video in the midst of the crisis, but the Egyptian judge wants the temporary ban as punishment.

The ministry, trying to explain to the judge why this is not an option, told the judge that blocking YouTube “would affect the search engine of Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), of which Egypt is the second biggest user in the Middle East.”


As the Wall Street Journal pointed out recently, Turkey has an unparalleled entrepreneurial culture, but at this point it’s way too concentrated in e-commerce sites that are clones of earlier successes.

Those earlier successes have already been noticed by some big names. EBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) invested in a Turkish auction site, GittiGidiyor, while Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) is an owner of an online florist called Ciceksepeti.

By Carol Kopp

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