The Afro-Sino Centre of International Relations (ASCIR) together with the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT has brought together some experts and some stakeholders in the technology space to discuss the Africa-China Technology Cooperation thus, Africa’s position amidst China’s emerging dominance.
The panel addressed the topic from different perspectives but they all ultimately converged on the fact that the use of Chinese technologies is on the rise in Africa, and hence, the need for the continent to position itself strategically to fully benefit from Africa-China cooperation in this arena.
Speaking on the topic, “Becoming a satisfied customer of made-in-China goods”, a Senior Lecturer of the University of Ghana, Dr Mark Kwaku Mensah Obeng in his presentation, highlighted the fact that Chinese consumer products traditionally, have had a bad reputation among African consumers because of the negative notion of the products being cheap and of inferior quality and therefore associated with poor Africans.
This assertion is supported by his research, where 91% of his respondents reported being aware of such perceptions of Chinese products. Despite this view, there is evidence of financially secured individuals and organisations opting for Chinese products, contrary to the generally held perception that Made in China is for the poor who cannot afford known western brands.
Made in China products he argues are making waves on the African market for several reasons beyond the Price. Dr Obeng explains of Made in China is gaining popularity because they respond to the demands of the consumer and keeps offering innovation in the area of technology. He pointed to Huawei’s introduction of 5G and some essential domestic innovations to support this claim. He further mentions that the usefulness of technology products from China in responding to emerging global demands, as well as the lack of competition in the market also account for the surge in the consumption of Chinese technology among African consumers.
Dr Obeng finally posited that the higher retention of customers in the purchasing of made in China products can also be attributed to the innovative and strategic marketing schemes and policies of Chinese electronics and technology companies. Policies such as the offer of extended product warranty, and free after-sale services provide nascent consumers with the needed security when purchasing these products. The engagement of celebrities as brand ambassadors also makes their products home to the consumers. Moreover, people have adopted the foot in the door strategy, where they start with few purchases, which may then increase or not based on their experience with the products.
Focusing on Africa’s position in creating mutually beneficial cooperation in the technology sector, Dr Tony Bediako, a Senior ICT/ Management Consultant, spoke on the Technology Transfer- setting up technology plants and capacity building.
According to him, two areas where he believes Africa is not leveraging cooperation with China. Job creation, he noted, is one of the areas that Africa could hugely profit from if the right policies are put in place. The mobile handset industry is said to be a top 5 industry in the world, accruing US$522 billion in sales revenue and annual sales of over 6 billion mobile devices according to a document by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority.
Referring to ITU Mobile Cellular Subscription data published in 2021, 53 African Countries had a total of 1,151,068,519 mobile subscriptions in 2020. He indicated that the ITU data for example, had mobile subscriptions in 2020 as follows; Ghana had 40,461,609 | Egypt had 95,357,427 | Nigeria had 204,228,678 | SA had 95,959,439 | Kenya had 61,408,904 | Ethiopia had 44,500,000.
He further stressed on the fact that millions of units of mobile devices are being shipped into the continent from elsewhere, which does not serve the continent well. On mobile phone shipments in Africa, from the first quarter of 2016 to the fourth quarter of 2021, Dr Bediako noted that a million units of both smartphone and feature phones continue to be shipped per Statista Research data. The research data indicated that, for example, in the fourth Quarter of 2016 approximately 60 million units were shipped, in the fourth Quarter of 2019 approximately 59 million units were shipped and fourth Quarter of 2021 approximately 50 million units were shipped.
Agreeing with several works of literature on the fact that, Africa is the fastest-growing continent in the world, and the home to some of the youngest populations in the world, Africa promises to be a major consumption market over the next three decades, becoming increasingly mobile phone-enabled as operators establish networks in rural areas in the poorest neglected areas on the Continent.
Dr Bediako pointed out that Africa can emulate populous countries like India, Indonesia and Pakistan that have capitalised on their numbers to develop their mobile device manufacturing policies, which has facilitated the production of mobile devices in those countries, creating jobs, serving the local market as well as for exportation. An African mobile device manufacturing policy, which would encourage the establishment of mobile phone manufacturing plants could be adopted by the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to enhance beneficial cooperation with China.
Also, another area that was discussed in which the continent can benefit more was the development of digital skills and capacity building for Africans. Dr Bediako mentioned that despite brands such as Samsung, Huawei, Techno and Infinix among others dominating the African market, they do not have their manufacturing plants in Africa. He underscored the importance of technology transfer for the continent, citing a World Bank report which places Africa, as the lowest developed continent for its human capital development index. He further asserts that in cooperation in this area, China need not solely focus on investment in technology, but also on knowledge transfer. Dr Bediako then suggested that nationally and continentally, policies can be developed by governments, AfCFTA and the African Union, to encourage China to facilitate the transfer of knowledge through alliances such as establishing partnerships in Research and Development to assist in capacity building, manufacturing as well as marketing and services.
The Assistant Professor of Global Digital Media in the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts, Dr Seyram Avle in her submission on the topic; “Situating hardware and software ecologies of Chinese consumer tech in Africa”, delved into the role that Chinese technologies, both hardware and software, play in the digitisation of the global south through the lens of Transsion—a Chinese mobile communication products company behind brands such as Itel, Tecno and Infinix. Dr Avle accentuated the shift in perception of Chinese technologies, evidenced by the rise of the purchase of Chinese phones by African consumers. This shift, she explained, is due to the sophistication and innovation of Chinese technologies, which in many ways parallel western made technology but at a more affordable price.
She added that Africa was left out of the production line, and has been thrust into a geopolitical battle in technology, between China and the West. Technologies on the continent have Chinese hardware but are embedded with Western software. African hardware and software designers are neglected and not given the necessary support by institutions, including their governments, due to a preference for technologies made outside of the continent than African made ones.
According to her, the transition has captured about 60% of the African market, despite not being considered a globally strong competitor, mainly because they conduct their market research on the ground, making sure to develop products and specifications according to the needs and challenges of Africans. For instance, their smartphone cameras better capture darker skin tones and other added features such as facial recognition in ways that western made phones do not. With Chinese hardware and Western software dominant in the African market, the question arises on where Africans’ data captured on their phones through applications such as facial recognition software, etc. are stored. There is additionally the question of increased surveillance that these technologies bring via common consumer products like mobile phones. These questions bring to the forefront the paramountcy of protecting African consumers, through the enactment and enforcement of data protection laws.