Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
  • A South African company has engineered a local solution that can lock down an Android cell phone remotely, and legitimately.
  • The tech is mainly used to prevent customers who renege on payments from accessing their phones.
  • And insurance companies, banks, and educational institutions are all interested in the homegrown solution.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider South Africa.

A South African company called Thinkadam has engineered a remote device management tool that has the potential to temporarily – or permanently – brick your Android phone if you fail to make your monthly contract payments.

The small local tech startup says its homegrown solution has the ability to change the credit risk usually borne by companies selling devices. And, by drastically reducing theft and non-compliance, also increase the prevalence of high-end smart devices in Africa. 

The technology can be implemented on all Android phones at a competitive price, and they’re already finding use cases both in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. (Although Thinkadam has not yet produced a similar product that works on Apple devices, should there be demand the company says the potential to include similar technology in iPhones is there.)

Unlike an app or third-party software, Thinkadam can’t be removed by the device user - and much like DSTV deactivating your decoder should you stop paying your instalments, so too can cell phone providers make a device unusable until the user complies.

Thinkadam’s CEO Hildeke Schreuders believes the system could be the answer to emerging markets’ need for digital inclusion. 

In some higher-risk markets, the option to lease high-end smartphones over one or two years, as typically happens in South Africa, is not the norm, she says. In some countries, like Nigeria, these leases are often over just three months owing to the high rate of non-payment.

“In our industry, everyone is looking for a competitively-priced remote device management system – a lock-unlock smartphone or device tech solution – that is easy to implement, seamless to manage and linked to a billing system,” says Schreuders. 

Schreuders says that many remote management solutions are either “limited to only a few models, easy to remove and hard to implement, or too pricey to make it viable. The latter is especially important in the market where it is most needed: the price-sensitive entry level smartphones space”.

And without a viable solution on the market, Durban-based founder Adam Bowen, after whom the company is named, created the system that ticked all of these boxes. When he met with Schreuders in 2019, who was desperately looking for a similar solution for an insurance client, they realised there was a large potential market.

“A mutual smartphone supplier called to tell me about Adam’s lock-down solution,” says Schreuders. “He shared that Adam built a solution mainly to support his own big corporate client. I pulled my car off the road and called Adam immediately.”

Schreuders’ business needed his solution directly - but she also knew many others were looking for it, and so she set about building up the company that today is Thinkadam.

“I suggested to Adam that I could help him build a business model around his invention, and that it was too good a product to just keep to ourselves. Adam agreed, and we set out to assemble our small team of five,” Schreuders says.

From initial conversation to onboarding their first customer, Intellicell, took just five months, and as Covid-19 hard lockdowns resulted in more people turning to their digital devices, so too the perceived value of their product increased.

By June the company reached its first major milestone of successfully testing the product on 50 different Android devices, and by August they’d signed up their first bank, a partnership that’s due to launch in December this year.  

Although on the surface the market for Android device lock-down tech might seem niche, Schreuders says it has been an easy sell. 

"It turns out there are many companies looking for a lock-down solution that works on all Android devices at a cost that makes it sustainable to implement and can’t be tampered with. It’s easy to register on one device at a time, or on as many as needed,” she says. 

Although Thinkadam is mainly targeting mobile networks or financial services company who offer Android rent-to-buy phones and want to reduce the risk of these disappearing with money still owing on them, there are also strong use cases for businesses, schools and universities who loan devices to staff or students and want to keep them “on-task, boost productivity and minimise theft”.

Companies can also use the technology to lock apps and features on phones that are not directly relevant to the work they’re provided for, and schools can go so far as to temporary block social media and lock device features, including the camera, during school hours.

True to its original iteration though, at least from Schreuders’ side, is also its potential use for insurance companies, who can leverage the ability to lock phones remotely to reduce claims and lower insurance risk. And future rollouts might also include related credit sale devices like set-top boxes and decoders.

Although locking phones might come across as a somewhat nefarious tactic to get people to pay up, Schreuders believes that it in fact has the potential to decrease the digital divide in developing nations. 

With the cost of smart devices remaining prohibitive for many consumers, Schreuders says technology like this has created an opportunity for a more inclusive yet still financially sound model. 

“Smartphone penetration is increasing rapidly in developing countries, but unlike developed economies, the saturation point is still some way off,” says Schreuders. “Rates of adoption are being driven by more affordable smart devices, the increasing necessity of internet access due to the rise of the digital economy, the utility of apps and the decline of cash as a method of payment.”

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