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February 26, 2021updated 03 Aug 2022 12:01pm

Has China already won the battle for Africa’s internet?

Big Tech companies are fighting for the future of Africa's internet, but Chinese companies may already have the edge.

By Laurie Clarke

Google’s Loon Project sent ghostly looking balloons the size of tennis courts sailing across the stratosphere. Weighted with communications equipment, the self-navigating system could deliver mobile coverage to an area 200 times greater than a ground-based cell tower. The project – named ‘Loon’ to underscore its outlandishness – was designed as a way to deliver internet in rural areas. But although it signed a deal with a Kenyan telecommunications company to beam down 4G, the project was recently discontinued due to lack of cost-effectiveness.

China Africa internet

Google’s ‘Loon’ project to bring mobile connectivity to Africa was recently cancelled. (Photo courtesy of  Loon)

Another ambitious project to provide internet in Africa met a more dramatic end. Facebook’s AMOS-6 satellite – intended to deliver broadband connectivity to hard-to-reach parts of sub-Saharan Africa – blew up when a SpaceX rocket exploded on the launchpad in 2016.

These Big Tech companies are increasingly invested in the future of Africa’s internet – home to the “last billion” of the approximately 3.8 billion people still without internet globally. But as geopolitical fault lines deepen between the US and China, the prospect of a fractured global internet looms. Will Africa opt for a Chinese or US-aligned web? 

Big Tech in Africa

Facebook has said that its focus on Africa and other developing parts of the world is part of a long-term strategy to drive growth across its platform, and Google appears keen to tap emerging markets for new sources of data

Both have ramped up digital infrastructure investment in the continent in recent years. Google is laying a subsea fibre optic internet cable called Equiano that will connect Africa and Europe, due to be completed this year. Facebook, along with companies including China Mobile International, MTN GlobalConnect, and Orange, is in the process of laying down 2Africa, an undersea cable that will encircle the entire continent, and deliver internet to Africa and the Middle East. The 37,000km-long cable is due to be completed between 2023-2024. 

Although coated in philanthropic spin, internet projects by US tech companies have attracted accusations of ‘digital colonialism’. One of the prime targets is Facebook’s (AKA Free Basics) initiative, which provides users with free access to a limited number of websites including WhatsApp and Facebook. Accused of distorting net neutrality and exploiting users’ data, the initiative was barred outright by India. It still functions in 33 countries in Africa, and is credited with maintaining Facebook’s influence in countries such as Kenya and Ghana. In 2017, Facebook said that more than 95 million people accessed its platform across Sub-Saharan Africa, 97% through mobile.

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The social media giant has also invested in projects designed to improve internet access in Nigeria and South Africa, and Google has rolled out fibre in the Ugandan capital Kampala, and parts of Ghana. 

Some of these efforts might end up proving fruitless, however, as some African governments are cracking down on social media. Facebook partnered with two other companies to lay nearly 500 miles of fibre-optic cable across Uganda, for example, but now Uganda’s government has blocked social media sites, including Facebook

Beyond networking, a data centre and cloud computing boom in Africa is currently attracting international attention. Africa currently accounts for 14% of the world’s population, but only 1% in data centre installed capacity, according to Dr Ayotunde Coker, managing director at Rack Centre, the biggest data centre operator in Nigeria. 

The current growth is being driven by “the need for organisations to embark on a digital transformation journey… pressure from local regulators to bring African content back to Africa, and a surge in streaming media content,” says Michele McCann, head of interconnection and peering at Teraco, Africa’s biggest independent data centre operator. 

“Taking Nigeria in isolation, internet user numbers have grown from 138 million at the end of 2019 to about 155 million users,” says Coker. “Broadband penetration continues to grow and is now at 45%, on to a target of 70% by 2025.”

South Africa has grown into a hub for major US tech companies’ cloud centres. Amazon Web Services’s first data centre opened in Cape Town in 2020, while Microsoft opened two new hyperscale data centres in Cape Town and Johannesburg in 2019. It trailed Huawei, whose commercial cloud service launched in South Africa in the same year. Oracle has announced plans to roll out cloud services on the continent in 2021. 

China and US internet ambitions in Africa

But in the fight for the future of Africa’s internet, US tech companies are already late to the party. Chinese telecoms companies have been integral to delivering connectivity across the continent for the past 20 years. Huawei alone built 70% of Africa’s 4G networks. While US tech giants have gained a foothold in the internet services and applications market, “there’s really no competition on the hardware on the infrastructure side,” says Eric Olander, founder of research and media organisation The China Africa Project. 

Huawei’s investments in Africa spiked in 2019, and this was almost matched by its activity in 2020, according to RWR Advisory, a firm that tracks Chinese investment. Not all of the projects tracked are infrastructure, however, and also include the likes of educational partnerships and training programmes. 

Overall, the RWR Advisory Group found that Chinese telecom and tech transactions in Africa in 2019 and 2020 each exceeded the number of deals reached during the previous three years. The country engaged with most by Chinese companies was South Africa, followed by Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and Egypt.

Chief operating officer of the RWR Advisory Group Andrew Davenport says that the relationship between China and many countries in Africa is “the definition of strategic dependency” that has come from “African states accepting China’s state-subsidised telecom infrastructure solutions over the past ten years”. 

But China’s reach extends beyond the backbone of infrastructure. Chinese phone maker Transsion Holdings, which makes the Tecno and Infinix brands, has become Africa’s top smartphone maker, selling more than 80 million phones a year. With Huawei, the two brands dominate more than half of the African smartphone market. 

US social media platforms such as Whatsapp and Facebook still dominate – WeChat is the only Chinese equivalent that is likely to break through in the near future. But the popularity of Chinese handsets in a continent where people overwhelmingly connect to the internet through mobile could give Chinese services a leg up in future. “[Transsion] has a walled garden because they have such a large market share across the continent,” says Olander. “As a result, they get to gatekeep who is allowed on to the platform.”

Now, Transsion is expanding its offerings. In 2019, the firm made a large investment in PalmPay, the Nigerian fintech startup, and it owns Boomplay, the music streaming service dubbed ‘the Spotify of Africa’, as well as VSKIT, a TikTok competitor, and Opera, the mobile browser. “The Chinese ecosystem for tech is far broader than just the infrastructure,” says Olander. 

“A Facebook cryptocurrency, or a European or US cryptocurrency, [is never] going to make its way onto a Transsion platform,” says Olander. “And if you can’t get onto Transsion, you’re not in the African market.” However, there are signs that China’s digital currency, DCEP, could soon launch on the continent. Huawei’s P40 handset, which was recently released in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, came with a DCEP chip built into it. 

Even Chinese e-commerce companies like Alibaba are beginning to engage with the continent. Olander says there’s speculation that Alibaba is assisting with the distribution of China’s vaccines across Africa, to create a logistical infrastructure that will be leveraged to ship products after the effort is complete. Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics arm, has partnered with Ethiopia Airlines for the task. 

Complementing technological ties, are deep economic ties. China has developed enduring diplomatic relations with Africa over the past two decades. It is now Africa’s most important economic partner. According to Global Data, China is the continent’s largest bilateral creditor, accounting for around 20% of external debt on the continent. 

The tech cold war: US and China battle over internet in Africa

As a tech cold war ramps up between China and the US, the question of which bloc Africa will side with becomes increasingly pertinent. Western policymakers have repeatedly aired concerns that China is foisting its authoritarian vision of the web and predilection for invasive surveillance technologies onto African nations. 

In reality, China appears to be deploying these technologies in an agnostic, demand-driven fashion. “China doesn’t tend to promote its model [or] privilege other authoritarian regimes,” says Iginio Gagliardone, author of China, Africa, and the Future of the Internet, who has done extensive research on this issue in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya and Ghana. “On the contrary, they tend to adapt to the requests coming from each individual government.” 

China doesn’t tend to promote its model [or] privilege other authoritarian regimes. They tend to adapt to the requests coming from each individual government.
Iginio Gagliardone, author

Rather than a means of imposing China’s model of the internet on African nations, Gagliardone says China views digital infrastructure projects as “more a tool for strengthening diplomatic relations”. The Chinese government is relatively quiet about its own model, says Gagliardone, but appears to endorse the notion that each country should develop its own internet – something which goes against the US’s conviction that there should be one, global web. 

“They don’t have any ideology that accompanies the installation of a Huawei piece of equipment,” says Olander. “That’s a problem for Americans and Europeans – because they think they should.”

Ratcheting tension between the US over China climaxed last year with a US-led campaign against Huawei, which successfully pressured a number of countries including the UK to cut ties with the company. 

Former US President Donald Trump’s administration encouraged African nations to sign up to the US’s ‘clean network’ initiative (excluding Chinese companies) but to little avail. The tiny monarchy of Eswatini was the only nation that agreed to sign up, before swiftly reversing course. 

Among other African nations, the pleas fell on deaf ears. Olander says that a major reason for this is that the US didn’t offer any alternative. “They don’t come to Safaricom in Nairobi and say, ‘Stop using Huawei – here’s $100m for you to remove your existing gear, and here’s another $400m for you to buy new gear’,” says Olander. “They just say ‘Don’t use Huawei, it’s bad.’ And that’s as far as it goes.” 

The US’s arguments are also not particularly compelling to African ears, Olander adds. The chief accusation is that Chinese tech contains backdoors that are used to spy on African citizens and politicians. But Olander says that for the typical consumer, data privacy is not considered an important issue. 

“Europeans are uniquely concerned about privacy and their governments are aligned with people on that,” says Olander, pointing out there’s little to no privacy regulation in Asia, South Africa, the US or most of the developing world. “In most countries, the concept of privacy is radically different than it is in Europe.” 

At the government level, US attempts at persuasion smack somewhat of hypocrisy. In 2018, the French newspaper Le Monde accused Beijing of bugging the African Union headquarters with Huawei equipment. The accusations were heartily endorsed by the US but denied by both the Chinese government and the African Union. Whether true or not, Olander said it appeared a little rich for the US government to jump on accusations of another nation of spying.

“The United States pretends, in many respects, that the Snowden papers and WikiLeaks didn’t happen,” says Olander, citing revelations that the US spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the UN building and the entire Spanish phone network. To African nations, the US message appears to be that spying is okay when America does it, but not China. In Africa, “there is a relative scepticism towards the East and the West,” says Gagliardone. 

The US’s warning also hinges on the idea that African nations’ data will be used against them by China in a time of conflict. But Olander points out that most African nations have no intention of entering into conflict with China – taking the teeth out of any potential threat.

In the face of the deep economic and technological ties between China and Africa, and the lack of substantive alternatives proffered by the US, these kind of allegations aren’t strong enough to persuade African nations to turn their backs on China. In the tech cold war, it looks like Africa may have already picked a side. 

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