“I bought it for Instagram”: How the iPhone has become increasingly sought after by young Nigerians

A prime symbol of cool for its aesthetic perks

The first time Adetola seriously considered getting an iPhone was during the coronavirus-effected lockdown period of 2020. Alongside a few of her friends, she’d decided to join in the viral “Don’t Rush” challenge, where groups of women shared videos of their transformation from barefaced beauties to glammed-up beauties within the blink of an eye, while the song of the same title by UK Afroswing duo Young T & Bugsey served as the backdrop. When Adetola sent in her filmed part to be edited as part of the final cut, she was “horrified.”

“After I was done recording—I was even the first to finish—I sent it to our WhatsApp group chat out of excitement, then I played it back and it looked like something out of a poorly created video game,” she says. At the time, Adetola was using a high end Samsung smartphone with great camera specifications. Even with WhatsApp’s well-known penchant for lowering video quality, she was pretty sure her recording would still look good. Well, it didn’t look good. “What even made it worse was that my other four friends all use iPhones, and their individual videos were crisp while mine was crumpy and basically trash,” she added.

Adetola ended up borrowing her sister’s iPhone 8 to remake her part of the video, which appeared “way better than the one from my more expensive phone with supposedly better camera specs.” Almost two months after that situation, she’d go on to buy her very first iPhone, the XR, upgrading to an iPhone 12 in November 2021. “I’m still very attached to my Samsung, but I’ve been totally won over by the iPhone aesthetic,” she says with an added laugh.

Aesthetic is undoubtedly the keyword in Adetola’s (semi-)switch to Apple’s line of flagship smartphones, and even though the circumstance that nudged her might be unique, the general context applies to many young people who have embraced the iPhone as their mobile device of choice. Many young Nigerians I know and spoke to for this piece noted that aesthetic was a big reason for switching to, staying with, and upgrading to newer versions of the iPhone, citing just how good images and videos looked on these devices, and how much better they looked when shared to social media—as compared to visual stuff taken on other mobile phones.

“I used to joke that I bought it for Instagram,” Chuks, a 27-year old data analyst, tells me. “I would be conscious of what pictures and videos to post on social media with my former android phone, because they just wouldn’t look good when I put them anywhere, even if they looked very good on the phone. Immediately I got an iPhone, I didn’t have to bother about all that.” That difference is a significant one for a lot of young people, especially in a time where it’s not just enough to have a smartphone that can take pictures and make videos, but also share them in clear, positively flattering light.

In theory, there are many android smartphones with equally good—or even better—cameras than the iPhone. It’s even quite easy to find mid-level android phones whose cameras come with high megapixel specifications, great depth sensors and zoom ability, and all that technical stuff that should make for great images and videos. Still, there’s a reigning preference for the iPhone as the mobile device with the ideal camera. For instance, Chuks readily admits that, before he got an iPhone, he’d prefer someone with an iPhone take pictures and make video clips when he went out with his group of friends.

This ingrained camera supremacy has only been helped along by articles with headlines as brazen as “Why iPhone camera take better pictures than android?” on the first google page of a related comparative search. Just beyond that, though, the superior image and video quality is the perfect gateway for the iPhone as a lifestyle choice that automatically makes a young Nigerian seem cool. “Yeah, the pictures are fire but, omo, iPhones are just fine to hold and there’s kind of a swag to using one,” Funke tells me. The 30-year old nurse has been using an iPhone since 2019 when she got an 8-plus, before moving to an 11 a year later, and now she uses a 12. Part of the allure, she tells me, is in how the iPhone has become the premium smartphone of choice, much in the same way the Blackberry was in the mid to late 2000s to the early 2010s.

In the years since launching the iPhone as a novel, almost buttonless device, Apple has evolved its smartphone line, not only in terms of its technology, but also as a lifestyle decision. With every innovative step, whether it’s the removal of that button and the headphone jack slot, or the addition of the AirPods and iWatch series as complimentary devices, Apple has created an ecosystem that’s becoming encompassing and fashionable, in and of itself.

With all of its desirability points, iPhones are notoriously high-end devices—which is a fancy way of saying they are really expensive. In Nigeria, where the economy continues to prove unfavourable to the overwhelming majority, the steep prices of iPhones contributes to its overall coolness. Even with the market for fairly used iPhones, selling at far lower rates than new ones, those that can afford the iPhone are people with a lot of disposable income—which is not a lot of people—and those that can aggressively save over a prolonged period.

“I had to set aside money for about six months to buy this 11 I’m using,” Folarin, an engineer at a construction firm, tells me. After a raise at work, he was able to save about one-fifth of his monthly salary for that period to afford his iPhone. While he also mentions the aesthetic value of an iPhone as the reasoning for buy one, he’s quick to rattle off reasons like fast processing power, the “gorgeous” UI, and privacy of the iOS as perks, but he’s also willing to concede that it’s something of a luxury to afford it. “I think it’s something of a status symbol, that you’re hip, that you’re upwardly mobile with a few naira in your pocket,” he says.

Owning an iPhone in Nigeria means people are prone to look at you through a rose-tinted lens, which also has its negative sides. The Nigerian police has earned its rep as an institution that harasses, assaults and even kills Nigerians, especially its young citizens. As a tacit signifier of financial capability, using an iPhone puts a young person at greater risks for dangerous run-ins with the police. “I was stopped an accused at a police checkpoint of being a Yahoo boy [local term for internet fraudster] on my way from a work site just because I had an iPhone on me,” Folarin recounts in a low tone, adding that he had to surrender almost all of the N7,000 cash he had on him just so they could let him go.

“On our way to a concert, they almost took me and two of my friends to the station, calling us names and accusing us of being Yahoo boy girlfriends partly because we all had iPhones,” Adetola recalls. It’s the sort of harrowing experience that’s been experienced by many, and widely known about by all. During the EndSARS protests of October 2020, I remember seeing a signage that read, “IPhone is not a gun,” highlighting its targeting effect for men in uniform.

Even with the societal red flag attached to owning an iPhone, many young Nigerians are still plotting their way to get one because it’s the in-thing. “I’m definitely getting one soon,” 23-year old Bella tells me. “I use a good Samsung phone but everyone in my workplace has an iPhone and they’ve done the peer pressure thing and convinced me to get one. It’s just remaining the money—well, some of it,” she adds with a laugh. When Bella gets her iPhone, she’ll join a somewhat exclusive set of smartphone users—according to Statista, iOS users make up just under 10% of the Nigerian mobile operating system market.

While smartphones are more than camera aesthetics or lifestyle choices, the iPhone has situated itself as a prime symbol for cool in an era very much defined by optics. Regardless of how you feel about it as a device, Apple’s smartphones will continue to be highly coveted by young Nigerians as long as those aesthetic perks remain alluring.