From Smartphones To Satellites: Why Is China Involved In Africa’s Tech Space?

africa tech space
Credit: Femovier via Iwaria

Africa’s tech space continues to rise in excitement, opportunities, investments, and innovation. In addition to Africa’s talent and development, China has continued being involved in Africa’s tech space.

China’s smartphone brands now lead in the African market. Thanks to this, African villagers and city dwellers are getting access to digital TV channels. In telecoms, Huawei helped Africa upgrade from 3G to 4G and is now indispensable in the transition to 5G. Satellites designed for Africa have gone into space. In this article, I discuss what China may be seeking to achieve with its wild rush into Africa’s tech space. 

How far is China’s reach in Africa’s digital space?

Africa is making commendable progress in catching up with the rest of the world in terms of technology. There are two reasons for this. Low investment in technology on the continent has made the potential for high turnover in this sector. Second, China’s unbridled appetite for this sector seems to be driving a lot of investment there. 

From smartphones to other types of electronics, Chinese brands, like Trasission’s Tecno and Infinix, have become dominant in the African market. To determine the extent of China’s share in Ghana’s smartphone market, Dagny Zenovia and I conducted a survey. We found out that sixty percent of our respondents used Chinese smartphone brands.   

Star Times, a private Chinese Digital pay-TV company, having displaced MultiChoice, is becoming the choice of many in Africa, providing services across 30 African countries with more than 10 million subscribers. According to Digital TV Research, this number is set to rise to 15 million by 2024. In addition, the company provides free access to 10,000 villages across the continent.  

Huawei constructed about 70 percent of the 4G base stations in Africa, helping to bring faster internet connectivity to a continent whose active internet users only keep surging. As the world transitions to 5G, Africa eventually will follow. Internet service providers in Rwanda, South Africa, and others have already initiated the process. According to Arthur  Goldstruck, Head of South Africa-based research firm World Wide Worx, it is unrealistic for Africa to shift away from Huawei in the transition to 5G. 

In December 2019, Ethiopia became the 11th African country to launch satellites into space. The other countries include Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Angola, Nigeria, and Algeria. From telecommunication to agriculture to military surveillance, satellite development provides exciting prospects for African countries. Though Japan and Russia have been traditional players in this sector, China’s recent foray will likely open more avenues of opportunities for African countries’ desire to explore space technology. 

So far so good: explaining China’s relative success in Africa’s tech space 

Three things probably explain the success of China’s Africa strategy. First, Chinese manufacturers do not underestimate the purchasing power of the African consumer. Second, they make products to suit the preference of their African customers. Third, China’s policy of promoting exports has emboldened private Chinese companies to test markets elsewhere, like in Africa.

Until the Chinese advent into Africa’s market, African consumers had to make do with foreign products not designed for them. Western manufacturers disregarded the African market over the low purchasing power of Africans. Therefore, upper-middle and rich class Africans only  could afford these products 

Profit or power: what does China stand to benefit? 

The current disposition of the continent makes one pessimistic about Africa’s economic future. Nonetheless, I believe the population boom in Africa would result in bigger markets and make the continent a bastion of productivity. 

The Chinese, known for long term planning, may have considered these projections and are adequately preparing for them. It is no surprise that Chinese tech giants are flocking to Africa’s tech space even before the continent attains that fully desirable level of attractiveness. The Chinese understand it is not only a question of the present but also the future.  

In all of this, profit is vital. The Chinese companies are not on a ‘father Christmas’ mission. Transsion, Huawei, Star Times, and several of the tech companies driving China’s push into Africa’s tech space are privately owned, operating on strict capitalist lines. Export promoting banks in China, aiding the journey into Africa’s tech space, have recently come under increasing scrutiny for best practices. This means that to keep the ‘buck coming’ these Chinese tech firms must balance the books. More importantly, they must balance the books to remain competitive against other foreign actors in the space. 

Beyond profit, China may be looking for power and influence. Word had it that China had bugged the edifice it built for the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There were also concerns that Chinese smartphones sold in Africa come with pre-installed malicious malware that steals user data. Fears of Chinese espionage like this have influenced the ban on Huawei in the US and parts of Europe. Feeding some of this fear is a Cybersecurity law in China that requires companies to provide data to the state whenever there is a need for it.  

Despite the law, China says it does not seek to harm foreign countries. The bad news however is that there is no evidence to conclude that China will hesitate to use this law, especially when doing so would give it an advantage over its adversaries.  

Though it is good Huawei is helping Africa connect to 5G, we cannot discount the possibility of the company using the backdoor to spy on African countries if the need were to arise.  Unfortunately, this, however, is the least concern of African governments in the time being.  

As the satellites go up in space, the prospects for their application are mutually beneficial. Whereas African governments look forward to using them for many purposes, including counter-terrorism activities, the Chinese on the other hand might use it to gather information for the purposes of securing their interest across the continent.

In line with other initiatives designed to promote Chinese culture and language, Star Times is showing Chinese content to its African customers. Together with Chinese scholarship for African students and the establishment of Confucius Institutes on campuses of African universities, the Chinese government is seeking to influence the perception of Africans on China.  

Thanks to China, Africans have access to technology that hitherto they only saw on TV. Or, at the very best, watched the few super-rich amongst them use. Therefore, the ordinary African has every reason to rejoice. However, the full ramification of this development, which includes a possible compromise of national security of African countries, would not be felt now, until much later in the century. 

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