China’s Reach Into Africa’s Digital Sector Worries Experts

Chinese companies like Huawei and the Transsion group are responsible for much of the digital infrastructure and smartphones used in Africa. Chinese phones built in Africa come with already installed apps for mobile money transfer services that increase the reach of Chinese tech companies. But while many Africans may find the availability of such technology useful, the trend worries some experts on data management.

China has taken the lead in the development of Africa’s artificial intelligence and communication infrastructure. 

In July 2020, Cameroon contracted with Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication infrastructure company, to equip government data centers. In 2019, Kenya was reported to have signed the same company to deliver smart city and surveillance technology worth $174 million. 

A study by the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based think tank, found that Huawei has developed 30% of the 3G network and 70% of the 4G network in Africa. 

Eric Olander is the managing editor of the Chinese Africa Project, a media organization examining China’s engagement in Africa. He says Chinese investment is helping Africa grow.

“The networking equipment is really what is so vital and what the Chinese have been able to do with Huawei, in particular, is they bring the networking infrastructure together with state-backed loans and that’s the combination that has proven to be very effective. So, a lot of governments that would not be able to afford 4G and 5G network upgrades are able to get these concessional loans from the China Exim Bank that are used and to purchase Huawei equipment,” Olander said.

Data compiled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based defense and policy research organization, show China has built 266 technology projects in Africa ranging from 4G and 5G telecommunications networks to data centers, smart city projects that modernize urban centers and education programs.  

But while the new technology has helped modernize the African continent, some say it comes at a cost that is not measured in dollars. 

China loaned the Ethiopian government more than $3 billion to be used to upgrade its digital infrastructure. Critics say the money helped Ethiopia expand its authoritarian rule and monitor telecom network users. 

According to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal, Huawei technology helped the Ugandan and Zambian governments spy on government critics.  In 2019, Uganda procured millions of dollars in closed circuit television surveillance technology from Huawei, ostensibly to help control urban crime.

Police in the East African nation admitted to using the system’s facial recognition ability supplied by Huawei to arrest more than 800 opposition supporters last year.

Bulelani Jili, a cybersecurity fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University, says African citizens must be made aware of the risks in relations with Chinese tech companies.

“There is need [for] greater public awareness and attention to this issue in part because it’s a key metric surrounding both development but also the kind of Africa-China relations going forward…. We should also be thinking about data sovereignty is going to be a key factor going forward.” 

Jili said data sharing will create more challenges for relations between Africa and China. 

“There are security questions about data, specifically how it’s managed, who owns it, and how governments depend on private actors to provide them the technical capacity to initiate certain state services.”  

London-based organization Privacy International says at least 24 African countries have laws that protect the personal data of their citizens. But experts say most of those laws are not enforced. 


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