The trade tiff between the United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies has been going on for several months now. While much of the fight has manifested itself in the form of tariffs, Africa, at the centre of a geopolitical battle between the two super powers has mostly sat it out and probably hoped to stay neutral.
But last month’s sanctioning of Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei touched a nerve. Because of its involvement with Huawei, Africa, though not mentioned anywhere in Donald Trump’s directive to Google ordering an end to technology sales to Huawei, felt jittery.
And for good reasons. Much of the continent’s telecommunications backbone has been built and is still being built by Huawei. Should Huawei get crippled by sanctions, Africa’s technology and communication gains will suffer as well.
Let’s take Uganda as an example.
Since 2008, the East African country has been implementing its National Data Backbone Infrastructure project. To date, approximately 2,400km of optical fibre cable have been laid connecting dozens of towns. The project is supported through a $107m concessional loan from the Exim Bank of China.
Needless to mention, Huawei is the contractor.
As a developing, landlocked country, Uganda is mostly concerned about lowering the cost of transporting internet bandwidth from the East African coast and high speed connectivity.
Africa’s technology needs
While America may have legitimate concerns about Huawei gear in its communications infrastructure, Africa’s worries, for now, are about connectivity. The continent just wants to get online.
More than just solidarity with Huawei, countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Rwanda, with big tech ambitions of their own, must be upset.
The Huawei ban is just another trick in Washington’s grand strategy to contain China’s rise.
As Addis, Nairobi and Kigali position themselves as centres of innovation; boasting about gains in AI work and robotics, they can and should worry that Washington has a tendency to be erratic and punitive.
Cultivating China-Africa ties
Probably in anticipation of this moment, Chinese tech companies have been cultivating deeper links with Africa. In 2017, ecommerce giant Alibaba’s Jack Ma made his maiden trip to the continent.
His Vision for Africa program is training 1,000 young African entrepreneurs operating platform-based businesses in the e-commerce, logistics, big data and tourism sectors. The training equips them with skills to champion new ways to approach commerce in their own markets.
It follows that the African Union is doubling down, not cutting back, on its cooperation with Huawei. In the agreement signed last week, Huawei will partner with the bloc to strengthen sectors including internet of things, cloud computing, broadband, rolling out 5G networks and artificial intelligence.
Broadly speaking, the United States’ new Africa policy unveiled by National Security Advisor John Bolton late last year felt, in both text and tone, as a thinly veiled ultimatum for Africa to choose between America and China. The Huawei ban does not seem like it will get many countries agonizing over which side.
Why Africa needs Huawei
Huawei’s telco equipment is cheap and reliable. For cash-strapped African governments desperate to get online, for cell phone signal, this is what matters most.
In South Africa, Kenya, Botswana and Nigeria, the world’s largest telecom equipment maker has signed agreements to develop smart cities. Smart cities help boost environmental sustainability by adopting modern technology in water and energy use.
The concept also greatly improves urban communication, safety and security. The share of Africa’s urban population is projected to increase to 50% and 60% by 2030 and 2060 respectively. China long figured out when and where to be in Africa.
The easiest way to get online in Africa now is with a smartphone. In Uganda’s capital, Kampala, some Chinese-made smartphone brands retail for as low as $30. One in three smartphones in Africa is a Tecno, made by Transision, a company based in Shenzhen, Southern China.
In Africa, China has provided affordable, reliable solutions to complex infrastructure challenges.
In looking at the US-China trade war, although it may not realize yet, Africa could end up providing the necessary counterbalance for calm and reason to reign.