Con­nect­ing Africa

China lends valu­able sup­port to con­ti­nent’s push for in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy, Li Lianxing in Ki­gali, Rwanda, re­ports

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

China lends valu­able sup­port to con­ti­nent’s push for in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy.

In­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy could well be the next sweet spot for in­vest­ment in Africa, judg­ing by the num­ber of ICT projects an­nounced by African na­tions re­cently. ICT’s im­por­tant role in African devel­op­ment was also re­it­er­ated last month, when lead­ers from 10 na­tions came to­gether in the Rwan­dan cap­i­tal Ki­gali to dis­cuss how it could be used more.

It was the 2007 sum­mit in Ki­gali that set the ICT ball rolling in Africa. It laid out the ground rules for the en­tire ICT ecosys­tem, in­clud­ing broad­band in­fra­struc­ture, ac­cess, pol­icy and reg­u­la­tion, skills, and elec­tronic ap­pli­ca­tions, which were later in­cor­po­rated in the ICT frame­work of var­i­ous African na­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port pub­lished by the African Devel­op­ment Bank, Con­nect­ing Africa: An As­sess­ment of Progress To­ward the Con­nect Africa Sum­mit Goals, African na­tions have made con­sid­er­able progress in all the ICT sec­tors. China has played a big role in this devel­op­ment, with Chi­nese com­pa­nies such as Huawei Tech­nolo­gies Co Ltd and ZTE Corp be­ing an in­te­gral part of the African ICT net­work, ex­perts say.

“The num­ber of mo­bile SIM cards sold in Africa has risen three-fold from the level in 2007 to 810 mil­lion now. This trans­lates into more than 380 mil­lion unique sub­scribers,” says Gil­bert Mbesherubusa, vice-pres­i­dent of op­er­a­tions, in­fra­struc­ture, pri­vate sec­tor and re­gional in­te­gra­tion at the African Devel­op­ment Bank.

“There has been a sub­stan­tial in­crease in the num­ber of mo­bile broad­band users in Africa. Data pro­vided by the GSM As­so­ci­a­tion, an as­so­ci­a­tion of mo­bile op­er­a­tors and re­lated com­pa­nies sup­port­ing the GSM mo­bile tele­phone sys­tem, show that there are around 116 mil­lion mo­bile broad­band sub­scribers in Africa, rep­re­sent­ing a pen­e­tra­tion rate of about 11 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion com­pared with just 0.35 per­cent in 2007.”

Mbesherubusa says mo­bile con­nec­tiv­ity has im­proved con­sid­er­ably be­cause of strong in­vest­ment in re­lated in­fra­struc­ture con­struc­tion such as tele­coms tow­ers and de­ploy­ment of net­works across broad ar­eas. For in­stance, the mo­bile net­work cov­er­age in ru­ral ar­eas of Africa has im­proved from 65 per­cent in 2007 to the point where ev­ery sin­gle vil­lage in Africa is served by at least one mo­bile oper­a­tor.

Fa­vor­able na­tional poli­cies and reg­u­la­tions have also helped ICT growth in Africa, with coun­tries that have de­vel­oped na­tional strate­gies ris­ing from 32 to 48 be­tween 2007 and 2011, the re­port says.

Although In­ter­net pen­e­tra­tion has more than dou­bled since 2007, Mbesherubusa says that 80 per­cent of the African pop­u­la­tion still re­mains un­con­nected, be­cause of avail­abil­ity and af­ford­abil­ity.

Most of the ICT achieve­ments in Africa have been down to the im­prove­ment of re­lated in­fra­struc­ture, in which China has con­trib­uted greatly, says An­drew Rugege, re­gional direc­tor of the Ad­dis Ababa- based In­ter­na­tional Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion Union, a United Na­tions agency that co­or­di­nates global use of ra­dio spec­trum.

“China has played a key role in fa­cil­i­tat­ing the growth of ICT in Africa. Huawei and ZTE are do­ing a good job in Africa,” he says, adding that many African na­tions have made good ICT progress by team­ing up with Chi­nese com­pa­nies.

“ICT has played a big role in so­ci­etal changes, es­pe­cially in sec­tors such as health, ed­u­ca­tion and agri­cul­ture,” Rugege says. “It is now pos­si­ble for African farm­ers to use ICT — in this case, a phone — to gauge the prices in var­i­ous mar­kets and de­cide on the best op­tion.”

To fur­ther en­hance the role of ICT in Africa, ef­forts are un­der­way to im­prove the qual­ity of re­lated in­fra­struc­ture such as ma­rine ca­bles, dig­i­tal mi­crowaves, mo­bile phones and vis­ual phones, he says.

The greater fo­cus on ICT in Africa will also prove at­trac­tive to Chi­nese com­pa­nies that are plan­ning global ex­pan­sion, he says.

Build­ing a com­plete and ef­fi­cient in­fra­struc­ture net­work is the best way to re­al­ize Africa’s ICT goals, says Steven Am­bitho, man­ager of Star Times Me­dia (Kenya) Ltd, a unit of Chi­nese dig­i­tal pay-TV firm Star Times Me­dia, which fo­cuses on bring­ing dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion tech­nolo­gies from China to Africa.

“The dig­i­tal me­dia in­dus­try is still in the pre­lim­i­nary stages of devel­op­ment in Africa,” Am­bitho says. “More ef­forts are re­quired for fu­ture devel­op­ment be­cause the ex­ist­ing cov­er­age and trans­mit­ter sta­tions are still not ad­e­quate for fu­ture re­quire­ments.”

Am­bitho says that the num­ber of trans­mit­ter sta­tions owned by Kenyan tele­vi­sion sta­tions is woe­fully in­ad­e­quate.

“The big­gest TV sta­tion in Kenya has just 70 trans­mit­ter sta­tions, while the sec­ond-largest has 20. What this means is low ef­fi­ciency and the in­abil­ity of the na­tional net­work to reach all peo­ple,” he says.

Tal­ent drive

“Although we were late en­trants, we have al­ready es­tab­lished 20 sta­tions in a year and we are in the process of build­ing a pan-African dig­i­tal TV plat­form for small TV sta­tions.

“For in­stance, with the suc­cess­ful con­struc­tion of a re­lated in­fra­struc­ture net­work, au­di­ences in Malindi in east­ern Kenya can now re­ceive more than 75 chan­nels com­pared with just two or three be­fore.”

Although Africa is a con­ti­nent with huge busi­ness po­ten­tial, it is im­por­tant for com­pa­nies to have an in­fra­struc­ture net­work that benefits all, Am­bitho says.

“We are help­ing the Kenyan govern­ment shift from ana­log to dig­i­tal trans­mis­sion as per the ITU re­quire­ments of an ef­fi­cient and clearer net­work for the peo­ple.”

Robert Mor­ris, vice-pres­i­dent of IBM’s Shang­hai-based global laboratory, says the abun­dant pool of young tal­ent in Africa makes it an ir­re­sistible ICT des­ti­na­tion .

He says strong link­ages can be forged in Africa if one finds the right di­rec­tion at the right time. He adds that com­pa­nies such as IBM have al­ready started us­ing their ex­pe­ri­ence in mar­kets in­clud­ing China to good use in Africa.

“En­ergy is one of the big­gest prob­lems for Africa be­cause most of it is wasted. Our learn­ings, es­pe­cially from China, have helped us join hands with African na­tions on en­ergy con­ser­va­tion mea­sures.”

Chi­nese com­pa­nies must move away from the safety of the do­mes­tic mar­ket and con­cen­trate on emerg­ing mar­kets such as Africa, Mor­ris says. Africa is an ex­cel­lent des­ti­na­tion for Chi­nese com­pa­nies to show­case their prod­ucts and tech­nolo­gies, he adds.

While it is dif­fi­cult to gauge the ad­van­tages of Chi­nese tech­nolo­gies com­pared with West­ern ones, af­ford­abil­ity is cer­tainly an im­por­tant fac­tor that can help Chi­nese com­pa­nies suc­ceed in Africa, Rugege from the ITU says.

“Tech­nolo­gies may be do­ing the same things, but peo­ple tend to choose the most af­ford­able one. Af­ford­able tech­nol­ogy is not just the amount of money paid up­front, but rather the sus­tain­abil­ity of the tech­nol­ogy and the terms of pay­ment. This is where China has an edge over oth­ers,” he says, adding that sus­tain­abil­ity comes from the part­ner­ship of the two sides in tech­nol­ogy trans­fer and ed­u­ca­tion.

Ed­u­ca­tion moves

With an eye on train­ing lo­cal tal­ent so that they can take up ICT ca­reers, many lead­ing global re­search in­sti­tu­tions have es­tab­lished lab­o­ra­to­ries and cam­puses in Africa.

Last month, IBM opened its first com­mer­cial tech­nol­ogy re­search fa­cil­ity in Africa for ap­plied and far-reach­ing re­search. The cen­ter will as­sess the chal­lenges faced by the con­ti­nent and seek to come up with com­mer­cially vi­able in­no­va­tions that can make a dif­fer­ence to peo­ple’s daily lives.

The re­search agenda also in­cludes the devel­op­ment of cog­ni­tive com­put­ing tech­nolo­gies, which in­te­grate learn­ing and rea­son­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties to help ex­perts make bet­ter de­ci­sions in ar­eas such as health­care de­liv­ery and fi­nan­cial ser­vices. Ac­cord­ing to IBM of­fi­cials, Africa is also a great strate­gic op­por­tu­nity, be­cause it is one of the early adapters of cog­ni­tive sys­tems.

“The re­search laboratory un­der­pins the govern­ment com­mit­ment to in­no­va­tion ecosys­tems that are al­ready avail­able in Kenya,” says Kenyan Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta.

“Us­ing in­no­va­tion to drive home­grown so­lu­tions, Kenya con­tin­ues to lead the con­ti­nent in ICT. Kenya, and the whole of Africa, will ben­e­fit from the pres­ence of one of the most ad­vanced re­search fa­cil­i­ties, with some of the world’s most tal­ented peo­ple, us­ing some of the most pow­er­ful tech­nolo­gies to de­velop so­lu­tions in Africa for Africa.”

At the same time, some ex­perts feel that set­ting up re­search in­sti­tutes in Africa rep­re­sents the next stage of ICT trans­for­ma­tion.

“We are cur­rently see­ing the emer­gence of a new Africa — one where science and tech­nol­ogy are en­abling a piv­otal leapfrog mo­ment by al­low­ing gov­ern­ments and busi­nesses to drive eco­nomic growth, raise the stan­dard of liv­ing and com­pete with their global coun­ter­parts,” says Ka­mal Bhat­tacharya, direc­tor, IBM Re­search, Africa.

“The full-scale tech­nol­ogy re­search fa­cil­ity rep­re­sents a new era in African in­no­va­tion and sets the tone for the con­ti­nent’s fu­ture sci­en­tific and eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence.”

In 2011, Pitts­burgh- based Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity opened its first African cam­pus in Ki­gali, Rwanda, to sup­port its ICT tal­ents pro­gram.

Bruce Krogh, direc­tor of CMU in Rwanda, says the univer­sity de­cided to es­tab­lish its cam­pus in Africa af­ter re­ceiv­ing an in­vi­ta­tion from the Rwan­dan govern­ment in 2007.

“CMU had a lot of global lo­ca­tions, but cer­tainly noth­ing in Africa at the time,” he says. “So the univer­sity af­ter care­ful eval­u­a­tion and con­sid­er­a­tion signed a 10- year agree­ment with Rwanda in 2011.”

CMU of­fers mas­ter’s pro­grams in in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and com­puter en­gi­neer­ing at its Ki­gali cam­pus.

Chi­nese univer­si­ties and com­pa­nies are tak­ing a more cau­tious route to foster ICT tal­ent in Africa. Un­like the cur­ricu­lum-based ed­u­ca­tional cour­ses, Chi­nese com­pa­nies are bank­ing on an em­ploy­ment and train­ing ap­proach.

“ICT is an in­dus­try that must be highly lo­cal­ized and needs a lot of lo­cal tal­ent,” says Am­bitho from Star Times Me­dia. “That’s why Chi­nese com­pa­nies are pay­ing more im­por­tance to as­pects such as tech­nol­ogy trans­fer to lo­cal staff and lo­cal em­ploy­ment.”

“We have more than 400 lo­cal em­ploy­ees and nearly all of them need for­mal em­ploy­ment train­ing,” he says.

“There are still lots of gaps be­tween what they learnt in school and what is re­quired.”

ICT cov­ers a wide range of in­dus­tries with dif­fer­ing re­quire­ments for tal­ent, Am­bitho says, adding that the dig­i­tal TV in­dus­try, for in­stance, re­quires the­o­ret­i­cal as well as prac­ti­cal skills.

“To im­prove the qual­ity of our staff and po­ten­tial em­ploy­ees, we are plan­ning to open a train­ing cen­ter in Nairobi soon. We have also been send­ing some staff mem­bers to China for short-term train­ing cour­ses,” he says. “We plan to train them in lead­ing tech­nolo­gies and skills.”

Apart from set­ting up re­search cen­ters, Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions are also fur­ther­ing ICT tie-ups through in­creased stu­dent and fac­ulty ex­changes.

ICT-re­lated cour­ses such as com­puter science or in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar with African stu­dents study­ing in China.

Nor­bert Haguma, a Rwan­dan com­puter science stu­dent at Bei­jing Jiao­tong Univer­sity, says he came to China to learn but, more im­por­tantly, to un­der­stand the Chi­nese ICT scene. Chen Yingqun con­trib­uted to the story.

SONG CHEN / CHINA DAILY

LI LIANXING / CHINA DAILY

Two Africans try a vis­ual phone at a re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion in Rwanda.

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