Published in ChinAfrica Magazine December 2009
Positive aspects of China’s involvement in Africa on display at 2009 China Africa Business Summit
Take the positive effects of Chinese companies coming into Africa. Use that as an example so that African governments and policy makers will say, “Hey, these kinds of partnerships do work.” Henk Kleynhans, Wireless Access Providers Association.
It seems the relationship between China and Africa has become an irresistible force in recent years. The desire to strengthen cooperation and understanding between the two is bringing people together to talk, listen and act. This phenomenon was on display in October when business and political leaders from China and Africa came together in Cape Town, South Africa for the 2009 China Africa Business Summit, hosted by Corporate Africa. “My view is that the summit was actually the beginning,” said Motsepe Matlala from the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions. “I think it was able to paint a map of where we must go [with the China-Africa relationship.]” Matlala said the networking was extremely useful and he was encouraged to see how the people came together.
The summit’s aim was to encourage the flow of ideas and expertise and included six panel discussions and six group workshops spread over three days. These sessions covered specific topics crucial to the development of Africa and the audience of national delegates and business leaders were able to benefit from a wealth of knowledge. One of the most exciting workshops at the summit was “Wireless Partnerships.”
There is a communications revolution going on in Africa and it seems to be moving faster than anyone could have predicted. The Wireless Partnerships workshop mainly focused on the radical changes seen in Africa as a result of the surge in cell phone ownership, as well as the direction this sector should be heading and the potential for Chinese companies to play a role.
Henk Kleynhans, from the Wireless Access Providers Association, chaired the session. He told the audience that by the end of 2009 there are expected to be 450 million cell phone subscribers in Africa, a huge increase from just 280 million in 2007. This is the fastest rate of growth in the world and the social benefits have been enormous. Poorer Africans are now using their phones to perform important, daily tasks; mobile banking, money transfers, checking agricultural information, access to health information – the list goes on.
The audience also heard a presentation from Chen Junhua, representing the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. Huawei has brought cell phones to Africa at a price that makes them accessible to whole new sections of the population. As Chen explained, the company is not simply dumping truckloads of phones on the continent. They have set up about 20 training centers around the continent, training 10,000 staff each year. They have also established research and development centers at Johannesburg, South Africa and Lagos, Nigeria.
“One of Huawei’s main objectives is to improve the efficiency of society and bridge the digital divide between rich and poor in the African continent and the rest of the world,” he said. Kleynhans said the Huawei example provides a useful way of looking at Chinese investment in Africa. “I do think that’s actually a phenomenal case study, in the sense that there was this opportunity for a Chinese communications infrastructure provider to sell goods in Africa. They realized the challenges but they came in and did what they needed to.”
Keeping right perspective
Kleyhans said Huawei should be seen in the proper perspective. He said that if the positive effects of Chinese companies coming into Africa are highlighted, they could be used as an example to show African governments and policymakers.
He told the audience that in his opinion this initiative would only work if Chinese companies are not restricted when coming into Africa. Kleynhans pointed out that Africa’s healthy communications revolution is partly due to the fact that governments have avoided protectionist policies in this sector. “There hasn’t really been any import tariffs that I know of [on communications equipment]. I think most African companies realize that what’s more important right now is to get more people connected. It’s not about the manufacturing of cellular equipment in Africa.”
Jumping the gun?
Another point of contention arose when Chen explained that Huawei was actively investing in LTE technology for Africa. LTE is the next generation of cell phone network technology that will eventually overtake the current 3G networks. “Over the years, Africa has been seen as a ‘Technology Follower.’ We believe it is high time that Africa be technologically on par with other global markets,” said Chen. This prospect has industry insiders chomping at the bit, but some in the workshop audience suggested the focus for now should be on getting a current 3G phone to every African possible, rather than prioritizing on LTE. “I challenged that [suggestion],” said Kleynhans. “[We should be] leapfrogging the old technologies. Don’t slow down technology, because you probably will then get a situation where every single person in Africa has a normal 3G handset, but you find that the later applications for mobile money and educational tools will not be developed for the 3G technology. So you probably won’t be giving them access to what would be most beneficial to them.” Both Kleynhans and Chen said the summit was an outstanding networking opportunity. “I’ve been contacted already by a number of potential clients and partners,” said Kleynhans.
Workshops and panel discussions at the Summit:
* Agricultural self-sustainability
* Banking and finance
* Power and energy
* Wireless communication
* Developing partnerships with Chinese investors
China Africa Business Summit at a glance
* Organized by Corporate Africa, backed by China Africa Business Council
* Held in Cape Town, South Africa October 21-23
* Dedicated to building partnerships and trade between China and Africa
* 12 nations represented
* According to business and political figures, the summit was a networking extravaganza
* 12 workshops/discussion panels on crucial African sectors
* Summit to become an annual event