Will China’s Intervention In Africa’s Tech Sector Expand In 2021?

Credit: Monde Nyamose via Iwaria

An average African could care less about the origin of the infrastructure networks they operate on. A gigabyte of data costs about 8% of a monthly income in Africa, according to the Alliance for Affordable Internet. That is much higher than in the Americas and Asia. Most Africans just want internet access at lower prices.

Western reluctance to support the ICT sector has left an open window for China to expand in that sector. While Chinese tech may be helping connect Africa, experts are becoming increasingly worried. They say African countries could copy Beijing’s internet censorship model. Looking at this competition, do Western tech firms stand a chance in Africa?

Red Flag Raised By The U.S.

The U.S. has been warning countries across the world that technology developed by Chinese firms, like Huawei and ZTE, could present a security risk. Allegedly, devices running on Chinese-made systems could provide a backdoor for Beijing to spy. While the U.S. campaign to get tech firms, like Huawei, banned in many countries has been hotly debated in Europe and others, African countries have by and large ignored it. 

China’s investment in Africa’s tech infrastructure continues to gain momentum on the continent. “Made in China” technology now serves as the backbone of network infrastructure in several African countries, unknown to millions of users. Firms like Huawei, ZTE, and China Telecom are behind the core systems of new ICT infrastructure across Africa. They are now providing the next generation of technology. 

In the last decade, African countries have largely turned to China to help them build and expand their digital infrastructure — with some countries increasingly dependent on Beijing. But that’s just one reason the U.S. warnings are going unheeded.

The tech war was initiated in former President Trump’s tenure. With President Joe Biden taking over, it seems the war will not end soon. The new administration is taking another route to tackle this issue, as it strongly agrees with the claim made against China by Trump’s administration. For all we know now, the war continues and Africa is playing blank on this. Eric Olander, the founder of The China Africa Project, said that the problem is the U.S. has not come with an alternative.

A Pick On China’s Tech On Africa

African countries received little support from Western governments for technology infrastructure. While the donors spoke about the importance of internet access in development, they were less prepared to provide aid for digital infrastructure. In Rwanda, for example, South Korea really supported the rolling out of 4G internet in the country, while the Western donors were not thinking it’s necessary.

Most of the smart city projects that involve Chinese financing and companies in African countries are aimed at making cities safer with surveillance systems. No one knows whether these systems could be used to crack down on government dissent. The concern is when very sophisticated technology is brought into environments in which the government has been known to violate human rights.

Adrain Shahbaz, Directorate of Freedom House, contributed to this issue saying, “bringing about greater internet access is not the same as bringing about great internet freedom.” Chinese firms are taking advantage of Africa’s weak digital governance, sensitive issues over data rights, online surveillance, and digital privacy being ignored. This emergence has also caused Western companies to take the back seat. The technology sector is being developed, but the West is not actively participating.

Despite the rising levels of internet access, most African countries are not free. This could continue to make attracting western investors difficult. Many are less likely to do business in less transparent environments due to moral and legal ramifications they could face.

Technological Advancement In Africa

Despite the patchy presence of Western tech firms, some are slowly launching facilities in Africa. Google recently opened its first artificial intelligence lab in Africa in Accra, Ghana. Microsoft launched its first data centers on the continent in South Africa. Technological innovations are also emerging from Africa. For example, the first-ever ‘made in Africa’ smartphone launched in Rwanda.

The African continent is home to some of the youngest populations in the world. It promises to be a major consumption market over the next three decades. Africa is also becoming increasingly mobile phone-enabled. An emerging digital ecosystem is particularly crucial as a multiplier of that growth since access to smartphones and other devices enhance consumer information, networking, job-creating resources, and even financial inclusion.

The door is still open. It really depends on the ability of each player to see niches and opportunities that have never been explored. While the door may still be cracked open for Western tech firms, it is wide open for their Chinese peers, as financing provided to African governments by Beijing continues to favor them.

Conclusion

Buying airtime and data is a big cost for the average African. There are still hurdles facing the technological sector in Africa. With the slow growth of its own companies, Africa has yet to kickstart. About 70% of African technology is managed by Huawei. China is deeply rooted in Africa and will complete its project goals.

Will Chinese intervention in Africa’s technological system expand in 2021? Yes. The negative effect on the economy should be stabilized by both Western and top African companies.

What’s your contribution on this issue? What do you think?

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