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Connecting point

Updated: 2013-12-06 13:55
By Li Lianxing in Kigali, Rwanda ( China Daily Africa)

China lends support to Africa's push for information and communication technology

Information and communication 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 of 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 and ZTE 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 over 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 GSMA, 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 to just 0.35 percent in 2007."

Mbesherubusa says mobile connectivity has improved considerably due to 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.

Though Internet penetration has more than doubled since 2007, Mbesherubusa says that 80 percent of the African population still remains unconnected, due to availability and affordability.

Most of the ICT achievements in Africa have been due 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 the global use of the 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, phone - to gauge the prices in various markets and decide on the best option."

To increase the role of ICT in Africa, efforts are underway to improve the quality of infrastructure such as marine cables, digital microwaves, mobile phones and smart 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, manger 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 as 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

"Though 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 building of infrastructure network, audiences in Malindi in eastern Kenya can now receive more than 75 channels compared with just two or three before."

Though 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 that 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, and adds that companies like IBM have already started using their experience in markets such as China to good use in Africa.

"Energy is one of the biggest problems for Africa as 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 like 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

With an eye on training local talent so that they can take up ICT careers, many leading global research institutions have established labs and campuses in Africa.

Last month, IBM opened its first commercial technology research facility in Africa, in Nairobi, 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, as 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 talents," says Ambitho from Star Times Media. "That's why Chinese companies are paying more importance to aspects like technology transfer to local staff and local employment."

"We have more than 400 local employees and nearly all of them need formal employment training. 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.

Liu Yanqing, dean of the Center for International Education at Beijing Jiaotong University, says the school started admitting African students from 1972, around the time when China was helping with the construction of the Tanzania-Zambia railway. About 200 African students came to the university to study railway-related technology. The university has 60 African students in various ICT-related disciplines.

Liu says the university also sends ICT-related faculty to Africa to provide technology assistance. But the companies provide most of the resources, she says.

Haguma says: "My school was near Zhongguancun, the Silicon Valley of China, and a place where any imaginable electronics accessory can be found at low cost. I was able to assemble and disassemble computers and buy all sorts of gadgets, something that would have been impossible in Rwanda. Magazines and other sources of information made the environment extremely conducive to learning.

"My graduation thesis was on education and ICT, and now I am pursuing the same goals to bring the benefits of ICT to education and other fields in Africa by working closely with Chinese companies, universities and African institutions."

Haguma says learning Chinese was one of the hardest things he had ever done, but the benefits are certainly paying off. China is much more closer to Africa in terms of development and can provide valuable lessons for future development, he says.

Chen Yingqun contributed to the story.


Connecting point

 Connecting point

Two men enjoy a demonstration of a smart phone at an exhibition in Rwanda. Li Lianxing / China Daily

Connecting point

(China Daily Africa Weekly 12/06/2013 page1)

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