Samsung Africa COO and vice-president George Ferreira.

Samsung Africa COO and vice-president George Ferreira.

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JUDGING by the numbers, it seems like a one-sided fight between Samsung and Apple over which manufacturer's smartphones are dominant in Africa.

The South Korean group accounted for 52,1% of all smartphones sold on the continent in the second quarter of 2013, according to International Data Corp (IDC), a tech research group. Canada's struggling BlackBerry came in a distant second at 17,8%, with Apple only in the single digits.

Samsung is not letting up. Of the 22m smartphones expected to be sold in Africa in the next year, it aims to account for at least 50%, says Samsung Africa COO and vice-president George Ferreira.

Falling wireless data prices, the extension of high-speed networks and a burgeoning middle class are driving a sharp rise in smartphone use. Smartphone shipments to Africa were up 21,5% y/y in the second quarter and now account for 18% of all mobile phones in Africa, according to IDC.

Africa is one of the few regions where phone makers still have room to grow. Telecommunications Union data shows mobile phone penetration rates of only 69% in Africa compared with about 95% in other regions.

Samsung's commitment to remaining the leading smartphone supplier in Africa was underlined by the high-profile launch of its top-of-the-range Galaxy Note 3 phone and its companion Galaxy Gear watch in Cape Town last week.

Apple and Samsung make no effort to hide their rivalry - they've taken each other to court over alleged patent infringements - but in some ways they are not even direct competitors.

If they were only competing on the features of each device then it would be an even contest, though some of Samsung's latest models have the edge over Apple's highly rated products, according to Strategy Worx CEO Steven Ambrose.

Ambrose says, however, that the battle is less about device features than what is commonly called the "ecosystem" around the handsets. This refers to their ability to access popular content like software applications, e-books, music and films.

Viewed in its entirety, Apple's iPhone range is the winner because its strict quality controls mean its content through iTunes is superior. It also has larger margins because it makes more money from selling content than its rivals.

Ambrose says Apple is not blind to the potential of emerging markets - its new iPhone C will be marketed in China - but since its products are designed for an elite market, by implication they are a natural fit for more developed countries.

Apple CEO Tim Cook in part affirmed this view. There was talk that the iPhone C would be an entry-level device. Instead, its asking price is only marginally lower than that of the recently released iPhone 5S. "We never had an objective to sell a low-cost phone," said Cook. "Our primary objective is to sell a great phone and provide a great experience, and we figured out a way to do it at a lower cost," he said in a recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

Ambrose says that if ecosystems are taken out of the equation, Nokia is more of a rival to Samsung than Apple is because Nokia and Samsung tend to compete on the specific features of their handsets.

This does not mean Samsung does not have its eye on further developing its own ecosystem. It is now providing access to popular African music and TV content and is also offering a repair and trade-in service. "We are making sure we have a smart ecosystem to complement the device," says Ferreira.