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China coherently moving Africa’s tech to the next level

By Charles Okeke Source:Global Times Published: 2019/8/22 21:03:40

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT





China is currently Africa's largest trade partner, a title they reached about 10 years ago. There is no doubt that the economic relationship between these two partners has received some criticisms, particularly from the West, but for the African leaders, China is their ally of choice. This is not only because Beijing has the funds to finance infrastructure projects in the region, but also because of the Chinese non-interference policy which suits African governments very well.

If you look all over Africa, you will see signs of Chinese businesses everywhere; as of 2018, it was estimated that over 10,000 Chinese companies were operating in Africa. 

The introduction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) about six years ago has broadened trade and investment horizons between China and Africa and was well received by the continent as another layer to an already flourishing cooperation. The BRI, which includes investments by private Chinese firms not only in Africa but around the world, has already witnessed successes in some parts of Africa. 

China has consistently been involved in infrastructure projects in Africa, particularly in the construction of road networks, seaports and railways, among others. With a teeming population - one which is expected to double by 2050 - the Chinese have recognized the need to stay close to their African allies for better economic dividends. The creation of the BRI is to realize this ambition. 

More and more African countries have recognized the relevance and significance of the BRI for Africa's growth and are willing to push China into expanding the program, particularly in the areas where results would be felt quicker and can be easily indexed.

Research and Development (R&D) has been on the rise in China and the country is earnestly closing up the gap between it and the US. China's total spending on R&D increased astronomically to 12.3 percent in 2017, which is about $250 billion.

For China's engagement with Africa, R&D has been the benchmark for improved and sustainable relations. The need to invest more in education, technology and agriculture under R&D is top on China's agenda under the BRI.

Technology, in particular, has been one field China has leveraged in Africa due to the continent's slow start when compared to countries outside the region. China has found little or no rivalry in this line of business, and Huawei's huge presence in so many African countries is testament to that. Huawei has successfully built about half of the 4G networks in Africa and most of the 2G and 3G networks.  

One would easily posit that the Chinese technology companies yearning for expansion are moving into the less technologically developed Africa, where countries are striving to attain a double-digit economic progression. At the moment, a lot of Chinese companies operating on the continent have found new opportunities in mobile technology, and have introduced forms of a product to the local market.

With such domination, China would like to go even further through BRI projects to capture the market of over 1 billion people in the region. 

Huawei's operational strategy revolves around the transfer of technology. This is one area where Africa is in serious need of assistance. Huawei sees it as a corporate social responsibility to get the locals trained in SciTech. One of the most prominent programs by the firm was what it dubbed the "Seeds for the Future" initiative. 

This is an idea designed to help young telecom talents on the continent. In 2017, it sponsored 10 African students to travel to China to have direct knowledge of innovative technology including 5G.

Analyzing mobile technology and internet connectivity, one successfully experimented digital project of the BRI is the PEACE cable, which is a fiber network that connects Asia to Africa and sprawls to Europe at a speed of over 16 terabytes per second. Huawei is also making this technology possible and has made provisions, for any telecommunications company interested in the invention, to connect and use the cable to increase its local network service.

Another side of technology that has not been discussed at length is digital technology. That is where one private Chinese firm, StarTimes, is doing a good job. The firm started its operations in Africa in 2012, and has been able to serve tens of millions of Africans with satellite television access, not only in cities but equally in rural and suburban areas. StarTimes has created roughly 50,000 jobs for locals. This effort serves as a prototype for new players that want to do business in digital television in Africa.

The BRI has many investment opportunities and is still in its infant stage - just like the current phase of technology in Africa. What this means is that the potential for growth is there, and the space for greater business cooperation between Africa and China is calling.

One area of major concern, however, is the lack of any serious push by African leaders to take control of the market. This will no doubt affect overall economic performance at the end of the day. At the moment, there are no ongoing discussions about how to take charge of this industry. African policymakers should engage their Chinese counterparts more in the area of technology transfers, which is key for any meaningful technological rise on the continent.

The author is a PhD International Law student, a published author and a commentator on Sino-African relations. He currently studies at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. [email protected]



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