This is what US-China digital cold war means for Africa

How digital cold war between United States and China is affecting the technological scene in Africa.


In 2019, Africa hosted two important individuals representing two geopolitical rivals and two different technological paradigms. Jack Dorsey and Jack Ma, co-founders of Twitter and Alibaba respectively, visited African countries that included South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria, meeting tech-savvy youths, the future-holders of African tech. The visit of the two "Jacks" is highly symbolic of US-China digital and technological cold war and rivalry. Is Africa going to choose between US and China or is the continent going to use this opportunity to play a more germane role in the global technological and economic scene?

Restructuring of global economy and infusion of new technology

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw several technological breakthroughs globally (such as contactless temperature scanning techniques, face recognition despite wearing face masks), increased e-commerce, as well as the rise in adoption of existing technologies due to restrictions as a result of the pandemic – for example, Zoom downloads saw a massive increase from 56,000 daily downloads in January to 2.13 million daily downloads in March 2020. Additionally, Alibaba nearly doubled its Singles Day gross merchandise sales volume from $38 billion in 2019 to $74.1 billion in 2020.

These developments point to a reconfiguration of the global economy and what is expected to be the main drivers of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). The restructuring has the potential to set the ground for technological and economic inequalities within countries (based on wealth, geography and genders etc.), as well as among countries. Of note, these changes are happening globally and highly dictated by the US and China.

For example, in terms of hyper scale data centers (HDCs) the US leads with 40% while China comes a distant second with a meager 9%. These are advanced nodes for the processing and storage of data for cloud computing and are quite expensive to maintain. These HDCs are integral in providing the power needed by technologies that are set to define the 4IR – artificial intelligence (AI), Augmented reality (AR), 5G connectivity, blockchain technology and 3D printing.

4IR and convergence of emerging technologies

The 4IR is in turn dependent on the scaling and convergence of these emerging technologies. For example, the convergence of 5G connectivity and speed, AI (automations such as in robotics) and cyber-physical systems interfacing (such as use of sensors and computer-based algorithms) lead to the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT in turn leads to the rise of smart cities, smart factories, smart homes, and every manner of other "smarts". In addition to this, other technological doors are opened. For example, smart city policy makers use AI in service delivery such as responding to emergencies, controlling traffic in cities, infrastructure development, supplying energy, among other important developmental initiatives. 

Africa is attempting to use these technologies and establish smart cities among other developments. This is especially so in South Africa, Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, Ghana, and Egypt where the governments already have plans for smart technologies. However, the continent still has a long way to go in ensuring energy and technology self-sufficiency and has to import from either the US (with its new political leadership) or China, presenting a diplomatic quagmire. According to Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, this US-China rivalry could cause more problems than the Cold War did: "…with the trade and technology confrontation that exists, there is a risk — I'm not saying it will happen — there is a risk of a decoupling in which all of a sudden each of these two areas will have its own market, its own currency, its own rules, its own internet, its own strategy in artificial intelligence," he said in an interview with Wired.

US Clean Network Program vs Chinese Global Initiative on Data Security

In 2020, President Trump's government launched the Clean Network Program, aimed at "safeguarding the nation's assets including citizens' privacy and companies' most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party", and called on all "freedom-loving" nations and companies to join. The program seeks to stop China in its tech tracks through a number of interventions, including preventing Chinese carriers being connected to the US, removing Chinese apps from app stores, preventing access to US cloud-based systems from China, and blocking undersea cable connection with China.

The biggest casualty was the 5G giant Huawei, which the US considers a threat to US national security amid fears it is working on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Other Chinese companies affected or shown the door include Tencent (WeChat) and Bytedance (TikTok). In this respect, the US intends to exclude any Chinese software, network equipment or service from online infrastructure in use in the US and other US-aligned friendly nations.

In response, China announced its own Global Initiative on Data Security that outlined issues to do with personal data handling, data security and surveillance, calling on "all States to put equal emphasis on development and security, and take a balanced approach to technological progress, economic development and protection of national security and public interests." Mainland China has consequently banned US tech giants such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and other social media sites.

Africa: In the middle of a US-China digital cold war

The rivalry between the US and China is likely to divide the globe into two halves, with Africa a potential battle ground where the two regimes are to test their technological prowess. Policy makers, tech players and consumers in Africa have several options at their disposal; take sides with either the US or China, sit on the fence, or seize what is good from each side and Africanize it.

Looking east?

In days past, Africa was guided by the popular Cold War statement by Kwame Nkrumah that favoured neutrality in "we face neither east nor west; we face forward". However, this is unlikely to hold water in the current technological rivalry. The US has been canvassing against Chinese tech giants such as ZTE and Huawei, as well as Chinese-made tech systems, as risks to security and espionage. While this is being considered in countries in Europe and elsewhere, Africa hears none of it. In fact, the two Chinese companies have built more than 70% of Africa's ICT infrastructure. In this case, if the situation dictates that Africa chooses between US or Chinese internet versions, 70% would go the Chinese way. Chinese-led tech infrastructure in Africa is booming and strong – China is helping African governments build their smart cities and data centres.

"Many African consumers have no idea they are using or talking on Chinese built [Internet, Communications and Technology] infrastructure," Iginio Gagliardone, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa says.

When the Western world seemed to be ignoring Africa in terms of technological infrastructure support, China steeped in. Additionally, while the US is canvassing against China, it has largely provided no alternatives towards cheaper access to digital resources in Africa. According to Eric Olander, the founder of The China Africa Project, the problem lies in the fact that US is not coming up with an alternative: "The US is not saying, don't use Huawei, here's a billion dollars for you to go and buy an Alcatel or Ericsson or Cisco network."

In signing a three-year MOU between Huawei and African Union in 2019, the continent entrusted China with its development in IoT, broadband, AI, cloud computing and 5G, the very technologies fueling the 4IR in Africa. Today, South Africa has the very first stand-alone Huawei 5G network in Africa. In addition to these infrastructures, Chinese feature and smartphones rule in Africa. This means that if Africans were to take sides, the huge majority would likely ditch Android and switch to Huawei's Harmony OS.

Looking west?

China is integrating big data into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to create the "digital Silk Road of the 21st century." This will integrate financial digital markets and connect cities, towns and countries along Chinese BRI with a network of next-generation technological infrastructure and coverage of satellites. By connecting to Africa, China will end up with a huge digital communications market and therefore control of cyberspace. It is well known that China has strict internet censorship tradition. Africa therefore risks huge disadvantages that comes with heavily censored internet.

The US is needless to say a tech giant in almost all spheres and facets of life. It is also a highly open democracy with less tech censorships. With the new wave of political optimism in America as a result of the new President Biden and Harris administration, Africa could put itself at a huge disadvantage if it ignores what this superpower has to offer in terms of technology. 

Looking within?

Africa has great potential and can innovate tech products suitable for its own market. Additionally, Africa can use both US and Chinese technologies to meet its tech needs in a hybrid manner. Africa therefore needs to come up with a home "Jack" in addition to welcoming the two "Jacks" in the continent.

According to the African Union (AU), African Digital Transformation Strategy seeks to enable the continent fully adopt 4IR technologies that include artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, drones, wearable technologies, 3D printing, Big Data, and software-enabled industrial platforms. This will see the development of a Digital Single Market (DSM) for Africa. And as part of important priorities of the AU, the continent has laid down frameworks that include Accelerated Industrial Development Action Plan (AIDA), African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), African Union Financial Institutions (AUFIs), Free Movement of Persons (FMP), Policy and Regulatory Initiative for Digital Africa (PRIDA), Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) and Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM).

In addition to these African development initiatives, startups in the continent are increasingly contributing to the 4IR ecosystem. According to the AU, startups in Africa garnered more than $1.2 billion equity in 2018, up from $560 million in 2017.

There are more than 442 active tech hubs, business (startup) incubators and accelerators across Africa according to a report by GSMA in 2018. The recent figures place the number at 618 and 643 according to Forbes. These hubs have emerged even in new regions beyond traditional hub regions in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco.

Mobile operators and internet service providers (with their own new and existing technologies such as mobile money), are pivotal in the promotion of the African tech scene due to their close involvement in the digital space. For example, Orange has used its Orange Fab hub to support the Francophone region of Africa. MTN and Liquid Telecom (provider of ICT infrastructure in Africa) are supporting the tech scene with in-house hubs such as Y’ello Startup (in Abidjan by MTN).

It is therefore important to note that these tech hubs are churning out startups in all facets of 4IR technologies. This therefore places Africa at the advantage of using both imported and home-grown technologies to forge head-first into the 4IR and share the spoils in the US-China digital cold war. Lastly, Africa has another hidden advantage as PWC notes: “From the demographic advantage of a young and fast growing population to a progressively well-off and ambitious middle class, Africa has the potential to become a new powerhouse of production and consumption in the 21st century.”