Monday, December 9, 2013, 09:51
Connecting across Africa
By Li Lianxing in Kigali, Rwanda

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

Connecting across Africa
(Song Chen / China Daily)

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.

“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.”

Talent drive

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

Connecting across Africa
Two Africans try a visual phone at a recent exhibition in Rwanda. (Photo / China Daily)

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.