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Society & Culture

Strengthening Network Reception in Africa

Apr 04, 2019
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

Given the controversial attempt by the Trump administration to prevent European and other nations from allowing Huawei to build their much anticipated 5G networks, it is notable that 70 percent of Africa’s 4G networks have been built by that Chinese telecommunications giant. Huawei has also constructed compact cell towers wherever it has built out networks.

Thus, in Africa, because of network transmission equipment, cell towers, and all the bits and pieces that make broadband function, nearly all of the nations of the continent are rely on Chinese-made technology and are seemingly content with this fact.

This construction has typically been made possible by loans from Chinese state-controlled banks or lending authorities. Together, those borrowings, the rapid rolling out of the networks, and the cost-effective manner in which this great leap forward occurs has catapulted Africa from the dark days at the beginning of the century, when Internet and telephonic access was limited and costly, to the halcyon days of 2019 when Africans can now connect to the web and contact their colleagues just as easily as Asians, Europeans, or Americans. Chinese technology has made that advance possible.

About 65 percent of 1 billion Africans have mobile telephones, mostly 3G and 4G. But even more own SIM cards, so some people have more than one phone and some people use SIM cards on other people’s devices. In any event, large swaths of a continent that, until relatively recently, were “in the dark,” are now lit up with the brightness of mobile telephones and computers. People in Africa have become as addicted to social media as others around the globe. This joining by Africans of the technological revolution, invented and pioneered in the Americas and expanded in Asia, has transformed many African countries and has made it possible for Africans in their millions to join the global village, functionally and in spirit.

In an imaginative manner, Africans are using the networks provided by Huawei to move money into brand new bank accounts, to receive remittances from abroad, to pay their bills, and even to contribute to charity. Thanks to the capacity of Huawei networks, Kenyans invented the app K-Pesho, which enables Africans to move money in every direction. Similarly, Zimbabwe’s EcoNet can now do the same. A South African firm is trying to compete for the same kind of customers in Nigeria and South Africa.

Thanks to Huawei, farmers and herders in several African countries can learn in which markets their produce will fetch the best prices. Until now, they had to walk to distant markets without knowing whether the trek would be worth it. The capacity of mobile telephones is also enabling medical information to be transmitted to patients and allowing patients to send diagnostic materials to distant physicians. Mobile telephone technologies on strong networks permit blood tests, malarial slides, heart murmurs, ear complaints, and so on to be transmitted seamlessly to far-flung medical centers.

Reliable networks, mobile telephones, and computers have transformed almost every aspect of African life in the twenty-first century.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration asserts that there are dangers. It fears that China will use Huawei equipment to intercept communications and funnel them to Beijing’s state intelligence headquarters. In Africa, this worry is based on seemingly strong circumstantial evidence: When China constructed and donated the twenty-story $200 million headquarters tower of the African Union in Addis Ababa in 2010, it allegedly employed Huawei to wire the building to capture public and private conversations. According to Le Monde of Paris, every night for five years the entire contents of the building’s computer systems—which were installed by Huawei—were transferred to China. Microphones were found embedded in the desks and walls. China, Huawei, and the African Union deny that the building was ever bugged. But suspicions linger.

Yet African leaders seem unconcerned. For them, and for most Africans, Huawei has been able to roll out networks much faster and at less cost than European competitors. So being spied upon doesn’t seem to worry Africans so much as it does the Trump administration. Moreover, several African countries have themselves purchased surveillance equipment from China and Israel to keep a close eye on their own peoples, and especially on their opponents.

What ought to bother African civil society more is that their own governments are shutting down access to the Internet and social media whenever citizens take to the streets and protest, or whenever ruling regimes feel uncomfortable. Chad, in extreme, made the web unreachable for 300 days in 2018 and 2019. Mobile telephones were useless. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, and Zimbabwe did the same thing for shorter periods this year.

Chinese officials are helping African governments to learn how to exert greater control over the free flow of electronic information. Tanzania and Uganda now have laws restricting who can reach the worldwide web; Tanzania makes bloggers and local social media content providers pay stiff fees.

CloudWalk, another Chinese company, is building a nationwide facial recognition system for Zimbabwe. It will be employed in elections and for identification, and possibly as a method of control. The data developed will also flow back to China as a way of training its own existing artificial intelligence neural systems to recognize and track people from different ethnic backgrounds.

Chinese technological advances, then, are providing many different answers to African problems. Most of all, however, the technological backbone fashioned by Huawei permits Africans to innovate substantially on their mobile telephones and computers and to remedy shortcomings in their own previous economic and social situations. Africa would be in a far less advantageous position without such well-functioning networks.

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