Importers of counterfeit Chinese mobile phones into Nigeria, Africa's largest telecom market, now face arrest and prosecution, a move that is expected to have a ripple effect in the region.
The African region is struggling to cope with an influx of counterfeit Chinese phones that has flooded the market, almost putting out of business genuine handsets, especially those from Nokia.
A Nigerian customs official has said he has briefed all customs personnel at various entry points to monitor the entry of the phones into the country and arrest importers of the phones.
Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) deputy superintendent Chinonso Onyima said, "we will do everything possible to ensure that importers of such equipment are dealt with."
Onyima said the NCS supports the initiative by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the country's telecom sector regulator, to rid the country of unapproved communication equipment, mostly mobile phones.
Most of the phones coming from China are not recognized or licensed by governments and they reportedly use smuggled chips, carry no verification from China's Ministry of Industries and Information and have fake international mobile equipment identity (IMEI) codes. Kenya was among the first countries in the region to implement a law enforcing regulation covering all handsets entering the market and blocking such phones from accessing mobile phone networks.
Zambia, Uganda and Rwanda are also among the countries that are implementing laws banning the use of the phones.
After failed attempts to block the entry of fake phones from the entry points, the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA) has introduced IMEI regulation aimed at ending the use of counterfeit handsets in the country. ZICTA said the elimination of the counterfeits handsets on the Zambian market will soon be done by blocking such phones from accessing mobile phone networks in Zambia. Only phones with registered IMEI numbers and SIM cards will be able to access the networks, under the regulations.
ZICTA's action comes in the work of a failed attempt to introduce a pre-export, verification-of-conformity-to-standard regime that was designed to ensure that electronic products, before being imported into the country, were first verified through physical inspection and laboratory testing by the Zambia Bureau of Standards (ZABS) inspectors.
Zambia has set the end of December as the switch-off date for fake phones. There are an estimated nine million SIM cards on the Zambian market but so far only about five million SIM cards have been registered, according to the Minister of Communications Yamfwa Mukanga.
In Uganda, SIM registration started early last year and came to an end in March this year with fake handsets being blocked from access the country's seven networks.
"African governments have now realized how much they are losing out in terms of revenue because most of the counterfeit phones are smuggled into the country," said Amos Kalunga, a telecom analyst at the Computer Society of Zambia.
Fake Nokia handsets from China, among them the E99i, E89i and E70i models, are missing some Nokia features and tones and Nokia confirmation numbers to verify the authenticity.
In 2011, Chinese embassies in the region promised to aggressively crackdown on companies and people importing counterfeit electronic products from China. Embassy officials said the Chinese government would start inspecting all ports in China and monitoring goods from production end to prevent counterfeit electronic products from being exported to Africa, claiming China's reputation was being damaged.
However, Chinese Ambassador to Zambia Zhou Yuxiao said recently that the problem was not China manufacturing counterfeit products, but Africans looking for cheap products.