Africa risks being entangled in ‘Digital Silk Road’

Diversifying high-tech infrastructure projects would free the region from long-term dependence on China

Digital technologies have many potential benefits for people in African countries. They can support the delivery of healthcare services, promote access to education and lifelong learning, and enhance financial inclusion.

But there are obstacles to realizing these benefits. The backbone infrastructure needed to connect communities is missing in places. Technology and finance are lacking too.

In 2023, only 83% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa was covered by at least a 3G mobile network. In all other regions, the coverage was more than 95%.

In the same year, less than half of Africa’s population had an active mobile broadband subscription, lagging behind Arab states (75%) and the Asia-Pacific region (88%).

Therefore, Africans made up a substantial share of the estimated 2.6 billion people globally who remained offline in 2023.

A key partner in unclogging this bottleneck is China. Several African countries depend on Beijing as their main technology provider and sponsor of large digital infrastructural projects.

Digital development

This relationship is the subject of a study I published recently. It showed that at least 38 countries worked closely with Chinese companies to advance their domestic fiber-optic network and data center infrastructure or their technological know-how.

China’s involvement was critical as African countries made great strides in digital development.

Despite the persisting divide between Africa and other regions, 3G network coverage increased from 22% to 83% between 2010 and 2023. Active mobile broadband subscriptions increased from less than 2% in 2010 to 48% in 2023.

For governments, however, there is a risk that foreign-driven digital development will keep existing dependence structures in place.

The global market for information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure is controlled by a handful of companies.

Huawei has been at the forefront of China’s 5G rollout. Photo: File

For instance, the main suppliers of fiber-optic cables, a network component that enables high-speed internet, are China-based Huawei and ZTE and the Swedish group Ericsson.

Many African countries, with limited internal revenues, can not afford these network components. Infrastructure investments depend on foreign finance, including concessional loans, commercial credits, or public-private partnerships.

These may also influence a state’s choice. The African continent’s terrain adds to the technological and financial difficulties.

Vast lands and challenging topographies make the roll-out very expensive. Private investors avoid sparsely populated areas because it does not pay them to deliver a service there.

Landlocked states depend on the infrastructure and goodwill of coastal countries to connect to international fiber-optic landing stations.

Still, it is sometimes assumed that African leaders choose Chinese companies because they offer the cheapest technology. Anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Chinese contractors are attractive because they can offer full-package solutions that include finance.

Financial backing

Angola, Uganda and Zambia are just some of the countries that seem to have benefited from this type of deal. All-round solutions like this appeal to African countries.

As part of its “go-global” strategy, the Chinese government encourages companies to invest and operate overseas. Beijing offers financial backing and expects firms to raise the global competitiveness of Chinese products and the national economy.

It also seeks to establish and promote Chinese digital standards. Research partnerships and training opportunities expose a growing number of students to China’s technology.

The ruling Communist Party expects that mobile applications and startups in Africa will increasingly reflect Beijing’s technological and ideological principles. That includes China’s interpretation of human rights, data privacy, and freedom of speech.

This aligns with President Xi Jinping’s vision of China’s “Digital Silk Road,” which complements the Belt and Road Initiative, creating new trade routes.

Made in China 2025 is at the heart of Beijing’s high-tech push. Photo: Wikimedia

In the digital realm, the goal is technological primacy and greater autonomy from Western suppliers. Beijing is striving for a more Sino-centric global digital order. Infrastructure investments and training partnerships in African countries offer a starting point.

From a technological perspective, over-reliance on a single supplier makes the client state more vulnerable. It becomes difficult and costly to switch to a different provider. African countries could become locked into the Chinese digital ecosystem.

Researchers like Arthur Gwagwa, of the Ethics Institute at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, believe that China’s export of critical infrastructure components will enable military and industrial espionage.

These claims assert that Chinese-made equipment is designed in a way that could facilitate cyber attacks.

Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization, has raised concerns that Chinese infrastructure increases the risk of technology-enabled authoritarianism.

African nations

In particular, Huawei has been accused of colluding with governments to spy on political opponents in Uganda and Zambia. Huawei has denied the allegations.

Chinese involvement provides a rapid path to digital progress for African nations. It also exposes them to the risk of long-term dependence. The remedy is to diversify infrastructure supply, training opportunities, and partnerships.

Compatibility could be the answer. It would allow a product or system to interact with other products and systems. It means clients can buy technological components from different providers and switch to other technological solutions.

It favors market competition and higher-quality solutions by preventing users from being locked into one vendor. Finally, in the long term African countries should produce their own infrastructure and become less dependent.

Stephanie Arnold is a PhD Candidate, Università di Bologna.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.