The US and China are currently locked in a technology war that is shaking the world. Africa has not been spared the effects of the mounting tension between the two top global economies.
Experts say the continent is bound to bear the brunt of this conflict considering its extensive reliance on technologies emanating from the two countries.
Stefan Dercon, professor of economic policy at Oxford University, says Africa will face tough challenges if it will be compelled to choose who to side with between the competing rivals.
“The continent will be in a real catch-22 situation,” he warns.
Dr Peter Mwencha, chief executive of International Society of Kenya, echoes Prof. Dercon sentiments saying Africa’s overreliance on Beijing and Washington imports is to blame for the current situation.
Africans, Dr. Mwencha adds, are major consumers of US and China technologies and “that is why they have found themselves in a difficult position”.
He advises Africa to develop its own innovations to avoid incurring heavy losses when tech giants such as China and US collide.
He opines that the differences between the two global tech powerhouses could expose Africa to political risks which could negatively impact overall economies. When US blacklisted Huawei, the overriding concern among Africans was what would happen to their devices. The Chinese tech giant was banned from using the Android Operating System (OS) found in almost every device.
This concern was understandable. Huawei is one of the most popular smartphones in Africa. And Android OS has more than 700,000 apps that are ready for download from Google Play Store. However, the Harmony OS that China has created as an alternative to Android, currently has only 96,000 apps. Thus, locking out Huawei from Android would greatly disadvantage African consumers.
While it appears Huawei and China seems to be losing big in the tech battle, a section of experts is of the view that US will experience its fair share of disadvantages as the war escalates.
” Huawei has gone ahead and designed its own operating system – Harmony – to retain users,” says Prof Bitange Ndemo of the School of Business at the University of Nairobi, adding that African consumers will still be able to continue using the gadgets, which remain affordable.
Prof. Ndemo seems to have a solid point. After the US ban, Huawei surpassed Samsung as the top selling smartphone in the world in the second quarter of this year, with a market share of 20 percent. Apple commanded 14 percent of the market, while other Chinese brands such as Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo also held their own.
Odero Otieno, a US-based Kenyan co-founder and CEO of Toronto-based startup, HealthBank, says every indication is that it is in Africa that the bitterest of Us-China tech war will unfold.
Technologies such as Tik Tok and Facebook, Mr Otieno says, will aggressively fight to win the hearts and minds of Africa’s 1.3 billion population.
“In the midst of this war is the growing global influence of technology companies based in China such as Tik Tok, surpassing America’s Facebook as the world’s most downloaded non-gaming app,” he notes.
Tik Tok, which now boasts more than 2 billion users worldwide, has been facing a ban in the US with major companies in the US such as Microsoft and Oracle seeking to buy out its US operations.
The dilemma facing Africa in the Washington-Beijing fight is not just about technology. It is about financial and technical aid as well.
“If you are pro-America, the Chinese won’t approve your loans as fast as before,” says Boniface Mutunga, an expert in international trade and finance.
In the fight for the African soul, China seems to be edging ahead. The US, which accuses China of espionage through its devices, algorithms and codes, only claims a fraction of the region’s market, while China takes the lion’s share.
Chinese products, Mr Mutunga notes, are far more affordable than those from the US. “African countries are still low income economies and therefore only a few people can afford the iPhone 11 Pro compared to the Huawei Y6,” he says.
Africans’ love affair with the open source Android system, he adds, could lead to depressed sales for Huawei smartphones on the continent. However, he notes, the other affordable brands are from China.
Dr Mwenja says China seems to be meeting the digital needs of Africa better than the US. That is why, he adds, companies like Safaricom use Huawei devices for their Wi-Fi installations, as they set the stage for 5G.
“The US approach to Africa is too commercial, too capitalist. Their products come with conditions, such as iPhones,” he says. “The Chinese have known what Africans want, they have embedded development in their policy of tech dominance.”
Huawei, whose 5G technology was banned in the United Kingdom due to pressure form the US, commands the largest share of fifth-generation networks in the world, with over 150 base stations being shipped, according to mobile recharge service Ding.
June last year, the company won 50 commercial 5G contracts for 30 countries, expanding its network to other Asian countries and the Euro zone.
“China has raised the yardstick for measuring global dominance. It is installing 5G in several countries strengthening its tech leadership,” remarks Mr Mutunga.
Huawei is also competing with Google in growing Kenya’s digital talent. Recently, the Chinese firm launched the seventh cohort where 60 Kenyan university students will be trained on technologies such as 5G, Big Data and Cloud Computing, in its Seeds for the Future programme.
Google, however, has surged ahead of Huawei in providing training locally, giving a grant of Sh100 million to train 100,000 farmers in the country in 2018, while partnering with the Mombasa County Government to train 5000 youth in digital skills as part of their Grow with Google programme.
To counter sanctions in the US and declining Chinese exports to Europe, manufacturers from Beijing have been populating African markets with cheap products. Local firms are unable to compete with the Chinese firms.
But as Africa builds its Big Data ecosystem, China’s tendency to listen into the lives of people using sophisticated technology is pushing the continent away from devices from the world’s most populous nation, citing privacy concerns.
In 2018, for instance, the Beijing had to deny reports that it eavesdropped for more than five years on the Africa Union meetings in Addis Ababa, by tapping confidential data from the servers.
Many media reports indicated that in January 2017, technicians noticed that between midnight and 2am every night, traffic in data usage was at the highest point even though the building was empty. Investigations revealed that the union’s confidential data was being copied on to servers in Shanghai.
China, which has funded numerous development projects in Africa, finds itself in the same boat with the US – through Google and Facebook – in breaching data laws, as they both take advantage of Africa’s underdeveloped Big Data sector.
Prof Dercon says Africa ought to tighten the nuts and bolts of governance over these technologies in order to avoid depending on the competing models of the two superpowers.
“Data cannot remain an ungoverned space including in Africa. Given the uncertainties and lack of transparency of the governance of technology, it may well force African governments to take cybersecurity, and the need for them to understand and invest in this, more seriously,” he notes.
Dr Mwenja says data being the “new oil”, it has triggered a quiet war between China and the US over who controls Africa’s data. He advises African nations to enter into partnership and create a data law to protect their citizens, “otherwise the two countries will keep amassing valuable data at the expense of the continent.”
Prof Ndemo blames Africa’s vulnerability to tech manipulation to its “disjointed” digital advancements.
“These (developed) nations are fighting for monopoly and have gathered so much behavioural data that they can predict how, why, when and what Africa wants,” he says.
He vouches for the creation of a single digital market for Africa, to enable the 1.3 billion citizens to negotiate in the global digital economy.
“We cannot compete as independent nations. We have to unite so that when we have an issue, the world can listen to us.”
Some experts see silver lining for Africa in the dark clouds of US-China tech war. African countries can use the lessons learnt and support local tech companies and startups, through grants, subsidies and establishment of government-funded technology hubs.
“African continent is endowed with some of the world’s most important minerals,” says Mr Otieno, adding that there is no reason why countries on the continent do not manufacture smartphones, laptops and cars.