China’s ICT Engagement in Africa: A Comparative Analysis

Telecoms infrastructure

This piece was published in the Winter Issue Print Edition (Volume 11)

Abstract

This paper will analyze the methods, extent, and economic and political effects of China’s penetration into African development of information and communications technologies (ICTs), with a heavy focus on the telecommunications sector. Through case studies of Chinese involvement in Ethiopian and South African ICT development, this paper finds that Chinese actions in the two countries and in the broader African continent reveal that a simple, dichotomous narrative of motives of political ideology and resource extraction is no longer sufficient to colorize China’s actions, nor can it entirely eclipse the positive empirical outcomes that these actions effect. Instead, explanations centering on practicality and adaptability in the face of divergent local environments in the form of soft power proves more fruitful in assessing its actions.

Introduction

As a rising global power seeking to challenge the United States’ hegemonic dominance of the international world order, China has rapidly extended its influence around the globe since its economic liberalization in the late twentieth century, transforming itself from a largely agrarian society to the second most powerful economy in the world. The twenty-first century, however, has ushered in a new stage of global development: the information age. In a burgeoning arena of interpersonal interaction upon which global individuals, societies, and economies hinge, information and communications technologies, or ICTs, have stepped up to become an indispensable player, serving to connect the disparate inhabitants of this increasingly interconnected world. Because of the state’s extensive control over the private sector, it is difficult to clearly distinguish between private and public interests or actions. Thus, in this paper, both actors will simply be referred to as “China.”

In recent decades, China has expanded into the digital realm, where it is competing with the West to establish spheres of technological influence. While China’s potential to build digital connectivity for more people is indisputable, especially in underdeveloped countries, many scholars and organizations in the West also fear that it may spread authoritarianism. They therefore urge the US and other Western democracies to compete against it to prevent China from establishing an illiberal technological hegemony in the form of “digital Leninism.”[1]

This paper will attempt to analyze the validity of these concerns in the context of China’s penetration into African development of ICTs, with a heavy focus on the telecommunications sector. China and Africa have had a long history of engagement through trade, diplomatic cooperation, and economic aid. In a period of growing Chinese expansion, it has paid special attention to development in Africa. Under the direction of the state, Chinese firms have increased their foreign direct investment (FDI) to African countries by 7,239 percent between 2003 and 2008 alone.[2] In recent years, China has also greatly increased its level of support for technological and ICT development in Africa. Through both foreign aid and developmental loans, it has invested in  indigenous companies and digital infrastructure such as cellular networks, big data, fiber-optic cables, e-commerce, artificial intelligence, and “smart cities.” 

The objective of this paper is two-fold. First, it aims to provide a better understanding of the methods and extent of China’s investment in ICTs internally and externally, and the importance of ICT investment to China’s rise. It hypothesizes that Chinese emphasis on ICT stems from its desire to establish itself as a great power, both through soft power and economically. Second, it will analyze case studies of Ethiopia and South Africa, two countries with significant levels of engagement with China but with different levels of ICT maturity. This regional focus allows it to compare China’s presence in the ICT sectors through the lens of two structurally different countries, from which it can compare methods of Chinese engagement. This paper hypothesizes that China will not be as involved in the Ethiopian ICT sector than it is the South African, as South Africa has a stable government, a stronger international voice, a more advanced market economy, and more natural resources. China can derive greater benefit from all of these factors than it can in Ethiopia.

However, the findings do not entirely hold up the hypotheses. This paper argues that analyses of Chinese actions in the two countries and the broader African continent reveal that though China’s rising role in the ICT world does stem from its objectives of economic growth and soft power expansion, its interests in ICT investment in Africa expand beyond basic consideration of wealth of natural resources, economic stability, and political motives, as it penetrated deeper into the Ethiopian telecommunications industry than what conventional wisdom may have suggested. Furthermore, from the cases of Ethiopia, South Africa, and other countries in Africa, it appears that although Western concerns of the spread of political illiberalism are legitimate, in reality, China’s intentions are more economically focused. Its actions brought about tangible economic and skills-development benefits to the populace and is met with much more positive reception. 

History of Chinese Aid and Engagement in Africa

China and Africa, historically, have had high and consistent levels of economic engagement with each other. Even before China’s economic liberalization in the 1980s, the country contributed to the economic development of newly independent African countries after centuries of Western colonial plunder. It saw their experiences as similar to what China itself had gone through following its “Century of Humiliation” from the 1830s to the 1940s, when Western powers and Japan subjugated China to a series of unequal treaties that forced it to relinquish territory and sovereignty.

China was the first developing country to establish aid programs of its own. Its aid, such as its financing of the 2,000-kilometer Tanzania-Zambia Railway in the early 1970s with a zero-interest loan, helped it garner favor with aid recipients. This was a contributing factor to its seizure of diplomatic recognition by these countries away from Taiwan, allowing its entry into the United Nations. By 1978, it had aid programs in more African countries than the United States. Deng Xiaoping’s rule in the 1980s then paved the way for not just aid, but what became known as “south-south cooperation” between developing countries of the Global South, laying the groundwork for its contemporary methods of engagement in Africa, securing investment and business ties despite its rampant domestic economic troubles. Gradually, it began joining international institutions including the World Bank and the African Development Bank, and the Chinese Red Cross also channeled humanitarian aid for disaster and famine relief in various African countries.[3]

Flourishing trade relations quickly accompanied China’s economic boom. Between 1989 and 2011, China’s GDP grew at a rate of 9.3 percent annually, allowing it to become the second-largest economy in the world by 2010 and one of its largest industrial powerhouses.[4] Trade then surged: the decade between 1999 and 2009 saw a 28 percent growth rate in trade between the two parties, and by 2010, Africa had become China’s top trading partner.[5] The relationship, however, proved imbalanced. China mainly exported manufactured goods to populous countries with large markets, and imported raw materials, 70 percent of which came from four resource-rich countries.[6] This then led to the widespread view that Sino-African economic relations was designed to be exploitative, providing benefits only for China itself.[7] 

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Investment patterns seem to mirror this. Data collected by the China Africa Research Initiative show that between 2003 and 2018, the total stock of FDI from China in Africa had risen from 491 million USD to over 46 billion USD, an increase of more than 9,368 percent. At the same time, the annual outflow of FDI to Africa rose from 74 million USD to 5.4 billion USD—a 7,294 percent increase. Over the same period, the total stock of US FDI in Africa increased from 19.8 billion USD to 47.8 billion USD, and the outflow actually decreased from 2.7 billion USD to -2.5 billion USD, after a short spike following the 2008 financial crisis.[8] In this area, China was able to successfully fill in the gap left by the United States. However, research by Catherine Boone and Dhawal Doshi found that since the late 1990s, China’s FDI to Africa has been mainly directed toward extractive industries such as oil.[9] This investment trend became known as the “Angola Model,” in which China provides low-interest loans to resource-rich countries in order to secure access to those resources. Between 2004 and 2011, China’s investment deals with seven of these countries reached a total value of 14 billion USD.[10]

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Lastly, the 2013 launching of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) fundamentally transformed China’s investment relations with Africa and the rest of the world. China opened its view to encompass more than just traditional sectors like mining and energy, and adapting to modern demands, now also encompasses areas of technology and communications.[11] Hence, the “Digital Silk Road” came about, and though still minimal compared to other sectors, investment in science, technology, innovation, and ICT has begun rising in importance in China’s economic strategy in Africa.

Literature Review

There has been plenty of attention given to Sino-African relations in investment, aid, and trade in the current scholarship, and less given to the aforementioned new informational and technological forms. 

In the traditional sphere, one of the most authoritative works is Brautigam’s The Dragon’s Gift, in which she explores trends in Sino-African economic engagement. She traces the history of the two’s economic engagement, assesses how it works, and concludes that China, in its effort to portray itself as a responsible stakeholder in the international system, has used its own developmental experiences to offer a “win-win” approach of non-interference in domestic affairs. This strategy competes with Western aid’s condition-based paternalism, offering “green shoots of new opportunities.”[12] There is much scholarly debate surrounding her work.[13] Critics argue that China’s non-interference policy is overstated, as there is proof of Chinese interference in Zambian elections, for example.[14] Others also agree with her that China offers a different model of aid and cooperation from the West, and that its model is complex and its role cannot be reduced to that of a “hegemonic recolonizer.”[15]

 Surrounding the reach of Chinese ICTs, Li Ling, Clayton Cheney, Hong Yu, Shen Hong, and Gianluigi Negro all discuss China’s digital and technological ambitions and capacities. Li examines China’s role in the fourth industrial revolution and its “Made in China 2025” plan of moving up the production chain, comparing it to Germany’s “Industry 4.0.”[16] Cheney’s, Hong’s, and Shen’s works address China’s Digital Silk Road and how its investment in digital infrastructure allows it to challenge the United States while strengthening its ties with other major Afro-Eurasian powers.[17] Negro analyzes the globalization of Chinese internet as part of its “going out” strategy of expansion.[18] There is also a comparison of Chinese telecommunications investment in Denmark and Africa.[19] For Chinese ventures in Africa specifically, two studies analyze the general trends of ICT developmental aid allocation from China to Africa and the role of Chinese telecommunications companies in molding Africa’s digital future.[20] This paper builds off the above works, but it additionally examines how China addresses ICT aid and investment in Ethiopia and South Africa specifically, tailored to different needs and circumstances.

Research Design

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 First, this paper will evaluate the importance of the ICT industry for China’s growth, explaining the roles of ICT globally, in Africa, and in China. Then, it will briefly discuss the role ICT plays in China’s Africa strategy specifically, and some of the resulting international reactions. Then, it will delve into the specific case studies of Ethiopia and South Africa. These two states were chosen for this comparative analysis because as per the ICT Development Index of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Ethiopia’s ICT readiness in 2011 was ranked at 150 out of 155 states surveyed and was the lowest-ranking African state. South Africa, on the other hand, ranked fifth highest among African states.[21] In addition to their starkly contrasting ICT infrastructure and technology in place, both have received significant amounts of investment from China. In 2018, they were among the top three African states with the most FDI stock, with South Africa being the top and Ethiopia in third.[22] The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was second, but this paper chose not to focus on it as it does not constitute an extreme case of ICT development on the continent, and unlike the former two, it has run a consistent trade surplus with China every year since 2002, adding more variables to consider when examining differences.[23] In each of these two countries, then, this paper will give an overview of the state of its economy and ICT sector, examine the means and extent of Chinese involvement in its ICT sector, and discuss the implications of this involvement. 

The sources used in this paper include data published by organizations including CARI, AidData, the World Bank, the ITU, the United Nations, Statista, Huawei, as well as governmental sources of China, South Africa, and Ethiopia. It also borrows data from various secondary reports and extrapolates the findings of some of those reports to form its own conclusions. 

The Importance of ICT for China’s National Strategy

ICT: What and Why?

In order to tackle the issue, one must first understand what ICTs are, as well as their role in global development. This paper uses the definition of ICT by UNESCO:

A diverse set of technological tools and resources used to transmit, store, create, share or exchange information. These technological tools and resources include computers, the Internet, live broadcasting technologies, recorded broadcasting technologies and telephones.[24]

According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, ICTs “are crucial in spurring development, dignity, and peace.” Rwandan President Paul Kagame agrees, declaring that “the role of ICTs in national, regional, and continental development, and specifically, in wealth creation, employment generation, and poverty reduction cannot be over-emphasized.”[25] The 2007 UNECA’s “E-Strategies” report emphasizes that while ICTs are “among the driving forces of globalization,” a digital divide of unequal access to and awareness of ICTs exists among developing and developed communities. Because they play such a crucial role in sustainable growth acceleration and poverty eradication, it is crucial for developing countries to adopt and implement ICT policies.[26] In an emerging global world order dominated by digital capitalism, ICTs are key to integrating developing countries into the global economy.[27]

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The State of ICT in Africa

            Over the past decade, significant strides have been made in ICT development. Between 2005 and 2019, global internet users increased from less than 17 percent to over 53 percent. However, while Europe had a nearly 87 percent internet usage rate in 2019, the figure in Africa remained a mere 19 percent. Asian states hovered at around 48 percent.[28] Both mobile-broadband and mobile-cellular subscriptions have continued to grow steadily at over 18 percent per year. However, fixed-broadband subscriptions have climbed up more slowly, and African countries continue to lag behind. In 2019, there were only 0.4 fixed-broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, compared to Europe’s 31.9 and Asia’s 14.4. The gap is significantly smaller for mobile-cellular subscriptions, but the disparity is still noticeable.[29]

Thus far, most countries have not been able to successfully close the gap. They are missing ICT manufacturing and infrastructural capacity, and most governments, despite lacking economies of scale and commercial expertise, have followed the recommendations of liberal international institutions to privatize state-owned ICT operators, inhibiting significant growth.[30] Still, countries have not allocated sufficient research and development (R&D) expenditures toward improving the sector. In 2016, sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab states had only allocated 0.4 percent and 0.6 percent of their GDP toward R&D, respectively, compared with East Asia’s 2.1 percent and the West’s 2.4 percent.[31] In 2018, as a percentage of total manufactured exports, high-tech exports constituted 8.4 percent of the Arab states’ total manufactured goods and 4.1 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s, compared to 31.1 percent of East Asia’s.[32] The number of African states actively implementing ICT strategies is also extremely low considering that those strategies are essential for their integration into the world.[33] The lack of development poses a huge problem for economic progress: there is a strong positive correlation between teledensity and growth, for the real GDP in Africa per capita increases by 0.5 to 0.8 percent with an increase of 10 people per 100 inhabitants of teledensity.[34] Africa has thus become marginalized in this international digital economy.

The State of ICT in China

Meanwhile China, as a result of its economic surge in the past decades, has had considerable success in ICT development. By 2017, ICT expenditures had risen to nearly 6 percent of its total GDP, and telecommunications revenue had generated an additional 2.88 percent of GDP.[35] In 2014, Chinese telecommunications companies also received 14.8 billion USD in FDI, though it remained a small part of total FDI.[36] Furthermore, between 2000 to 2017, the percentage of internet users in China grew from 1.78 percent to 54.3 percent, mobile-cellular subscriptions rose from 6.61 per 100 inhabitants to 103.44, and fixed broadband subscriptions, from 2001 to 2017, rose from 0.03 to 27.74.[37] Its exports of automatic data processing equipment, high-tech products, and mobile phones have all surged as well, and in 2017, export of ICT goods constituted over 27 percent of its total exports, though that percentage has decreased slightly since its peak in 2006.[38] In 2015, its e-commerce transactions reached 21.8 trillion RMB, ranking first in the world.[39]

Because of these successes, in recent years, China has placed ICT development at the forefront of its development and expansion strategies. Its BRI blueprint from 2015 specifically called for the creation of an “information Silk Road,” including bilateral cable networks, transcontinental submarine cable projects, and improved satellite passageways.[40] As part of its thirteenth Five-Year Plan published in 2016, China placed ICT development and “informatization” as one of its top priorities. By 2020, its goals were to have achieved significant successes in the construction of a “digital China,” with leading informatization capabilities in areas such as big data, e-government, e-commerce, complete commercial deployment of 5G networks, and increased financial support for other informatization areas.[41]

China’s ICT Footprint in Africa

For the ICT developmental gap in Africa, especially with the Western retreat in investment ventures, China has eagerly stepped in to fill in the vacuum. In directing ICT and technological aid and investment, it continues to tout its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, specifically that of non-interference in internal affairs, which, as Brautigam proved, many African countries have embraced. China has become the largest foreign ICT investor in Africa, and between 2001 to 2007, it pumped over 3 billion USD into the sector.[42] In December 2015, President Xi Jinping pledged to inject another 60 billion USD into development projects on the continent, which included ICT development.[43] The presidents of South Africa and Zimbabwe both have praised Xi’s plan as a “healthy counterbalance to the West.” In leveraging these loans, China has made itself into an epicenter of global ICT development and digital soft power.

Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE have been central players in the modern African “mobile revolution.”[44] In 2019 alone, Huawei generated 858.83 billion RMB worldwide, an increase from 146.6 billion RMB in 2009, and occupied around 30 percent of global market share of IT network vendors, a large plurality.[45] ZTE is China’s second-largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer after Huawei, and the two have become the most influential Chinese telecommunications manufacturers in Africa. Huawei entered the African market in Kenya in 1998, and as of 2016, it had sixteen regional offices and operated in over 40 countries on the continent. It now is Africa’s largest telecommunications provider; in Nigeria, it shares over 90 percent of the market with ZTE.[46]

The two are largely funded by the Chinese National Development Bank (CDB) and the Export-Import Bank of China (EXIM), state-owned institutions providing financial support for developmental projects of Chinese enterprises, particularly in underdeveloped countries. For instance, they have received over 45 billion USD in authorized export credits to conduct loans to foreign markets from the CDB.[47] The rise of Huawei, ZTE, and other transnational telecommunications companies has accompanied China’s own digital innovation rise over the years. Through the establishment of economic-political ties with the Chinese state in an era demarcated by unprecedented ICT and economic growth, it comes as no surprise that it rose up to face the evolving demands and forces of digital globalization. 

International Reactions

China’s rapid growth in the ICT sector has transformed it into a leading world player that has reached far beyond its borders, forging full-speed ahead into the age of digital information. From official state documents and statements by officials, it is clear that Chinese ambitions grew along with the ICT sector. Fears like “digital Leninism” voiced by the critics mentioned at the beginning of this paper emerged from China’s increasing presence in the global ICT market. A basic scan of Western media also reveals the prevalence of such sentiment among the public. In 2012, the US House Intelligence Committee released the “Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE.” The report, citing American national security interests, essentially denounced the companies as Trojan horses for CCP infiltration and espionage of the United States, warning private sector companies against conducting business with them and recommending Congress and the administration to further investigate their trade practices.[48] In August 2019, the Trump administration signed into law a bill barring Huawei and ZTE, along with other Chinese telecommunications firms, from use by the government and its contractors.[49] Japan issued a similar ban in December 2018, and many other countries have also articulated similar concerns over cybersecurity and backdoors that may lead to the loss of sensitive information.[50]

These conflicts have intensified competition between Chinese and Western ICT providers in Africa. Hence, the rapid expansion of the Chinese telecommunications industry has greatly intensified geopolitical struggles among different powers vying for control upon a heavily-contested continent richly endowed with resources and ripe with untapped market potential.

Case Study: Ethiopia

The latter half of this paper will investigate Sino-African cooperation and relations in the ICT sector through the case studies of two countries, Ethiopia and South Africa. As explained previously, the two countries were chosen because of China’s high levels of economic engagement with both through FDI and because they are at opposite ends of the ICT readiness spectrum.

The AidData dataset was especially helpful in assessing the case studies. It included all official Chinese aid projects from 2000 to 2013, with 4,373 records totaling 354 billion USD. It did not have ICT-specific categorization in its coding, and for the purposes of this paper, all projects related to technological innovation, research, and development, and communications were recorded as ICTs for the two countries in the study.

Overview

Since 2004, Ethiopia has been experiencing relatively rapid and stable economic growth. It has had an average GDP growth rate of around 10 to 11 percent annually from 2009 to 2021, with a steep rise in GDP per capita in the past decade as well. Meanwhile, its R&D expenditures averaged around 0.27% of its total GDP from 2010 to 2018.[51]Nonetheless, with a population of nearly 96 million people in 2019 and GDP per capita of around 950 USD, it ranked 173 out of 189 countries in the 2019 UN Human Development Index, among the lowest.[52]

The Ethiopian political system has been fairly stable since March 1991, when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the current ruling party, took power. Though the EPRDF has made efforts of political decentralization, it has maintained state control on much of its core infrastructure, including the ICT sector, and has historically resisted the influence of neoliberal institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.[53] For most of its history, Ethio-Telecom, the state-owned telecommunications provider, has maintained an unchallenged monopoly in the country. In 2016, the EPRDF finalized its National ICT Policy and Strategy, addressing strategic obstacles and issues in the area.[54] However, as shown by its dismal rankings on the ICT Development Index and the Networked Readiness Index, it still lags severely behind most other African countries.[55] From 2000 to 2017, the percentage of internet users increased from 0.02 percent of the population to 18.6 percent, a low statistic compared to its neighbors. Its mobile-cellular subscriptions increased from 0.03 per 100 inhabitants to 37.2, and its fixed-broadband subscriptions rose only from 0.03 per 100 inhabitants to 0.06, both of which are also incredibly low in the region.[56] Because of this, Ethiopia has largely been embracing economic relations with China commercially, through trade, and as an aid recipient.

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Chinese Engagement

China and Ethiopia have had close economic ties: in 2017, China was Ethiopia’s largest import partner and third largest export partner.[57] In line with Brautigam’s analysis, the threats of political democratization conditions attached to Western aid and institutions have pushed Ethiopia toward another partner espousing non-interference.[58]

In a dataset of Chinese aid projects in Africa between 2000 and 2013, 96 projects were associated with Ethiopia. These projects consisted of direct aid to Ethiopia, aid to Ethiopia as part of a group of African aid recipients, or projects that took place on Ethiopian territory.[59] Among those, a plurality of fifteen projects went to education, ICT followed with twelve, and ten each went to energy generation and supply, government and civil society, and transport and storage. 

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Out of all ICT-related projects for all countries during this time period, the largest was a 2006 ICT infrastructure project to Ethiopia with ZTE, funded by EXIM Bank, that amounted to a 1.5 billion USD loan for equipment. ZTE first entered the Ethiopian market in 1996, and this project marked the first time Ethio-Telecom had reached a stage of substantial cooperation with another telecommunications provider.[60]

After this initial point of aid, Chinese telecommunications companies continued to entrench themselves into the Ethiopian market. In 2013, Ethio-Telecom signed a 700 million USD agreement with Huawei to expand 4G and 3G cellular service throughout the country, half of a 1.6 billion USD project financed by Huawei and ZTE.[61] In more recent years, Huawei has further aided Ethiopia in the ICT sector in bridging the digital divide through skills development programs, including its initiatives “Seeds for the Future,” the “ICT Talent Ecosystem,” and ICT competitions. Working closely with the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education, the company conducts educational exchanges and opportunities involving thousands of university students, and according to Huawei, brought technology into hundreds of schools.[62] Outside of telecommunications, another significant ICT project planned is a memorandum of understanding with Alibaba to create a new e-commerce platform, the Electronic World Trade Platform, aimed to foster coordination among international organizations and enterprises.[63]

Implications

In 2007, after the keystone 2006 developmental agreement between Ethio-Telecom and ZTE was put into action, the two collaborated on a project designed to roll out 10,000 kilometers of fiber-optic network and expand mobile and wireless network coverage.[64] Though one cannot entirely attribute the following results to this project alone, the following growth was considerable: between 2007 and 2012, the number of mobile subscriptions grew from 1.2 million to 17.5 million, and between 2009 and 2012, the number of internet subscribers grew sevenfold.[65]

Though it is too early and not within the scope of this paper to assess other quantitative impacts these projects have had on Ethiopian telecommunications infrastructure, there are a few other factors and changes they have brought that are telling of China’s motivations in and contributions to the region.

First, China’s involvement has brought about tangible, though not precisely quantifiable, economic benefits to Ethiopians by laying down the foundations for further skills and knowledge accumulation. In the Ethiopian government’s National ICT Policy, one of the key objectives it lists for further growth and development is the acquisition of ICT human capital.[66] No matter how invested Chinese ICT companies are in the country, or how much it spurs digital connectivity and cellular network coverage, the benefits that Ethiopians can derive from such involvement are unsustainable and limited if Ethiopians find it difficult to partake in the process themselves and spur more indigenous growth. ICT infrastructure, systems, services, applications, and hardware cannot be utilized to their maximum potential without a skilled labor force operating those systems and digitally literate citizens taking advantage of them.[67] Education is therefore a crucial step in ICT development, as well as in the nurturing of professionals and technologically competent members of the workforce. 

The work that Huawei is doing with its establishment of ICT Academies seems to be a correct first step toward this direction, in taking on corporate social responsibility for the society in which it operates. It reports that it has launched courses at over twenty universities, training over 1,500 students in ICT. Its implementation of the SchoolNet Education Cloud initiatives has brought cloud desktops to 365 schools in the area, and it claims to have directly assisted in the digital education of over 300,000 college students.[68] Whether the numbers are as accurate and impactful as it touts, or if they have been exaggerated for the sake of public relations, Huawei’s actions in digital training and education are noteworthy. These efforts show that the form of Chinese aid does seem to include, to a limited extent, working directly with locals and the government, heeding attention to the Ethiopian National ICT Policy, and tailoring the program to Ethiopia’s specific needs in network coverage and talent development. This supports the theory that Chinese aid in Africa is favored because many may perceive it as less paternalistic than standard Western models.

However, along with the benefits it brings to the populace come caveats, specifically, in the Ethiopian government’s use of Chinese telecommunications technology for surveillance of its citizens and potential suppression of political dissent. The Ethiopian ruling party has explicitly expressed their support of the Chinese approach of non-interference to ICT aid. In a 2013 interview, the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, Debretsion Gebremichael, communicated the following:

The Chinese approach doesn’t compromise our sovereignty. It doesn’t interfere with our policy. It doesn’t deploy a prescription. It is purely business. The partnership we have with them is not only free from political conditionalities but also from business conditionalities. It is a very attractive deal that allows us to develop our capacity to implement our development policies.[69]

Western aid givers often may include stringent regulations on standards of surveillance, privacy, and free speech. Despite the lack of Chinese “political conditionalities” in its aid that Gebremichael praises, it is difficult to tell whether China truly abides by its non-interference principle or if it also wishes to help prop up a fellow illiberal regime.

With the capability to construct the “Great Firewall” within its own borders, many are concerned that China’s technology has the potential to assist others in doing the same, especially given Ethiopia’s lack of a “comprehensive legal framework governing civil society,” as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace puts it.[70] In 2009, Ethiopia’s adoption of the “Charities and Societies Proclamation” and the “Anti-Terrorism Proclamation” led to increased governmental freedom to use counterterrorism, a venture supported by China, as a pretext to crack down on human rights and civil society organizations.[71] The expansion of cellular networks across the country also made it possible for the state to expand surveillance in rural areas. In turn, the reduction of space in which civil society could operate—coupled with enhanced surveillance capacities—resulted in barriers to further development and reduction in monitoring by both international organizations and domestic human rights groups. 

Though ICT advancements with Chinese aid did make this more possible, these concerns do not apply specifically to the Ethiopian government, as technology can be and is used by both liberal and illiberal regimes in control and discipline of their societies. Téwodros Workneh also argues that despite the threats of governmental oppression, for poor countries like Ethiopia, the benefits of expanded connectivity for the ordinary Ethiopian to the world heavily trumps an “unhelpful elitist discourse” focusing solely on surveillance.[72]

Case Study: South Africa

Overview

The South African economic and political structures and maturity differ drastically from those of Ethiopia. Its electrification, education, financial, and healthcare systems soar ahead most others in sub-Saharan Africa.[73] As a result, one would expect to see a different form of Chinese engagement in the country. First, South Africa has one of the highest-performing economies on the continent. Though the growth rate of its GDP has leveled out and fallen lower than Ethiopia’s, averaging around 1 to 2 percent each year, South Africa’s GDP has climbed fairly steadily since the 1980s, with a slight downturn after 2011, reaching around 360 billion USD in 2019.[74] This puts it as the African country with the second-highest GDP, following Nigeria, perhaps because of South Africa’s endowment of natural resources and minerals.[75] Its expenditures for R&D from 2010 to 2018 were 0.82 percent of its total GDP, four times that of Ethiopia, and on the Human Development Index, it ranked at 113 under the category of “high human development,” 60 spots above Ethiopia.[76] Hence, it has assumed a leadership role within the African Union as a model that many others look to for development.

Though national GDP has risen slowly, the growth rate of the ICT sector is double the national rate, contributing roughly 6 percent to total GDP.[77] Despite this, the ICT policy and regulatory environment lags behind other countries with comparable economies and sector development levels in ICT preparedness, such as Turkey and Chile.[78] In June 2009, the South African Communications Forum (SACF) launched its “ICT Vision 2020,” in which it set goals to become a “leading country in the information era.” Finally, Research ICT Africa found that the two core obstacles impeding ICT development for South Africa are a weak regulatory environment for the industry due to the government’s hands-free approach, as well as a lack of ICT skills development—as in Ethiopia.[79]

Chinese Engagement

South Africa’s economic engagement with China has been strong. In 2017, China was South Africa’s largest import and export partner, and South Africa has remained China’s largest African trade partner since 2010.[80] In its interactions with Chinese ICT companies, both the southern African regional headquarters of Huawei and ZTE are situated within its borders, a sign of its perceived stability and importance to China. Huawei first entered the country in 1998, and by 2015, it had employed 1,028 in the country, over 60 percent of whom are local South Africans.[81] Unlike Ethiopia, South Africa’s ICT sector has not been monopolized by the state since it was deregulated in the 1980s to 1990s. Rather, it is an oligopoly, in which the main competitors for Huawei and ZTE include the popular Western vendors Ericsson, Nokia, and CISCO. The two largest domestic players are Vodacom and MTN, followed by Cell C and Telkom Mobile.[82] To wiggle their ways into the market, the Chinese companies used intense price competition, offering prices up to 50 percent less than their Western counterparts. They were able to do this with ease because of their state-backed funding; however, the two still remain fierce competitors with each other.[83] 

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When analyzing the AidData dataset for Chinese aid projects in South Africa from 2000 to 2013, there were 44 projects total directed toward or involved South Africa, significantly fewer than there were in Ethiopia.[84] Among those, educational aid was by far the most frequent. Industry, mining, and construction, as well as trade and tourism projects tied for second, both of which are to be expected given South Africa’s profitable mining and tourism industries from which China could extract economic benefit. However, unlike in Ethiopia, there was no large, extensive aid project devoted for ICT; among the two listed, one was an agreement on the exchange of expertise rather than a direct loan for a development project.

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Other forms of Chinese ICT engagement in the country include educational and skills development initiatives by Huawei, such as the ICT Academies and Talent Development Programs also established in Ethiopia. Huawei also is currently working with Rustenburg, a city known for unsustainable platinum mining, to develop a “Smart City.” It is building a system that implements, integrates, and employs tools of ICT, including the Internet of Things, big data, geographic information systems (GIS), and other forms of communications technology in order to secure access to urban resources that seeks to put the city on a more long-term path of economic growth.[85] Thus, even though South Africa has not received the same level of direct attention in its ICT development endeavors as Ethiopia did in 2006 and 2013, Chinese ICT corporations still occupy a significant part of the market and have engaged with South African firms and the state in other ways.

Implications

The first thing to consider is the discrepancies in Chinese ICT penetration strategy in these two countries and the motivations behind them. Unlike Ethiopia, which falls behind tremendously in economic strength and ICT readiness compared to the states around it, the South African economy is the second largest on the continent and serves as one of its premier manufacturing and mining hubs. Thus, it is likely that South Africa received fewer aid projects related to ICT development than did Ethiopia, a poor, densely populated country in the midst of growth, during this time span simply because it had a lower level of demand for them. In contrast, the South African economy and certain aspects of the ICT sectors may have already grown to a point of diminishing marginal returns, for both South Africa and China. 

What, then, can characterize the nature of the relationship between China and South Africa? Liu Guijin, in Perspectives on South Africa-China Relations at 15 Years, argues that the bilateral development and growth of relations in the past two decades has been one of mutually advantageous benefit. As the top economies in Asia and Africa, they had often acted in consensus with each other in developmental issues in international organizations such as the UN and the WTO. Gradually, as trade and diplomatic relations tightened, the relation had evolved from a “partnership” in 2000, to a “strategic partnership” in 2004, and finally, to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2010.[86]

This lens can perhaps also shed insight on the two countries’ digital interaction. As Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE inject themselves in the South African telecommunications markets, they are met with a lot more resistance than they were by Ethio-Telecom. Through competition, South Africa treats the Chinese presence as a more equal business partner in a market-oriented industry, compared with more direct Chinese dealings with the state-owned monopoly of Ethio-Telecom. Furthermore, local companies and government departments often are hesitant to cooperate with Chinese telecommunications firms due to a lack of trust. Not only is there the “Made in China” stigma, but many found Huawei lacking in business professionalism, partly in bias against the language barrier of some employees, but it has also been unwilling to share information which leads to contestations over transparency and accountability.[87] These factors highlight the competition that is indicative of a “strategic partnership” based on principles of equality and balance.[88]

Despite all this, as seen in other forms of engagement above, China and South Africa have taken many steps toward cooperation in the realm of ICTs. A panel on ICT policy hosted by the South African Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services in 2015 emphasized the importance of relying on public-private partnerships and coordination, as well as ensuring the stable development of ICT skills and job opportunities in the sector.[89] This thus is an opportunity for China to further demonstrate its social corporate responsibility while forging closer partnerships with South Africa. In fact, Huawei seems to already be attempting to fill in the gap of skills training with not only its signature academies, but also in free 5G courses at local universities, and working with Vodacom to introduce 5G services to the country beginning this year.[90] Such a strategic partnership, then, not only may bring about tangible benefits to South African citizens, but in Forje and April’s views, may pave the path for larger collaboration between South Africa and China in integrating indigenous knowledge to assist other African countries develop ICTs and make advances in science and technology.[91]

Conclusion

This is not an endorsement of China’s ICT investment and cooperation abroad. China’s actions do not constitute selfless acts of altruism undertaken in accordance with the genuine interests of the country and its people. China may see Ethiopia, a country lacking in resources but populous with an underdeveloped industry, as possessing a huge, untapped market from which it can extract potentially ludicrous economic gains through business partnerships and market influence. Despite the use of surveillance methods by the EPRDF, China’s actions in the country are less politically motivated than they are in line with economic interests. Rather than exporting “digital Leninism” through regulations attached to its aid, it seems that China trends toward a fundamentally more Smithian pursuit of self-interest, whereby both illiberal controls taken by the Ethiopian state and the economic and social benefits to Ethiopian people resulted from its actions. 

On the other hand, in South Africa, a state with a strong, stable economy with which it has had long-standing investment and trade ties, China’s ability to penetrate deeply into the ICT sector and gain economically is as limited by institutional barriers of competition as it is in the West. It then needed to adapt its approach, turning instead toward policies of strategic partnership and mutual cooperation, through which it hopes to extend its soft power in the international arena and break into a new market—that of 5G—that undoubtedly will sculpt the future of the global digital economy. 

Therefore, the nature and motivations behind China’s penetration in Africa’s burgeoning ICT industry are multifaceted, with complex circumstances of different actors and societies that may serve to advance or thwart its interests, to which it adjusts its strategies accordingly. A simple, dichotomous narrative of political ideology and hunger for resource extraction is no longer sufficient to colorize China’s actions, nor can it entirely eclipse the positive empirical outcomes that these actions effect. Instead, practicality and adaptability in face of divergent local environments in the form of soft power seems to prove more fruitful in both achieving and assessing economic and political security.


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References:

[1] Clayton Cheney, “China’s Digital Silk Road: Strategic Technological Competition and Exporting Political Illiberalism,” Pacific Forum 19, no. 8 (July 2019), 2, 22.

[2] Munyaradzi Mawere and Costain Tandi, “‘A New Form of Imperialism?’ Interrogating China-Africa Relations and Development Prospects in Africa,” in Development Perspectives from the South: Troubling the Metrics of [Under-]Development in Africa (Langaa RPCIG, 2016), 394.

[3] Deborah Brautigam, The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 33-70.

[4] Phineas Bbaala, “Emerging Questions on the Shifting Sino-African Relations,” in Inclusive Development in Africa: Transformation of Global Relations (Pretoria: Africa Institute of South Africa, 2018), 228.

[5] Bbaala, “Emerging Questions,” 233.

[6] The four countries were Angola, South Africa, Sudan, and Congo. Bbaala, “Emerging Questions,” 233-36.

[7] Bbaala, “Emerging Questions,” 241.

[8] “China-Africa Foreign Direct Investment Data, Country by Country, 2003-2018,” Excel data (Johns Hopkins China Africa Research Initiative (CARI), February 2020). 

[9] See Catherine Boone and Dhawal Doshi, “The China Model in Africa: A New Brand of Developmentalism,” in Development Models in Muslim Contexts (Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 47–82.

[10] Yun Sun, “China’s Aid to Africa: Monster or Messiah?” (The Brookings Institution, February 7, 2014).

[11] Rong Wang, François Bar, and Yu Hong, “ICT Aid Flows from China to African Countries: A Communication Network Perspective,” International Journal of Communication 14 (February 24, 2020), 1498-99.

[12] Brautigam, The Dragon’s Gift, 312.

[13] See Barry Sautman, review of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, by Deborah Brautigam, The China Journal 66 (July 2011); Jonathan Munemo, review of Review of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, by Deborah Brautigam, Political Science Quarterly126, no. 4 (2011): 721–3; Philip Liu, review of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, by Deborah Brautigam, The China Quarterly202 (June 2010): 444–46; Brian Levy, “The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa – By Deborah Brautigam,” Governance 24, no. 1 (2011): 186–88; Jane Golley, review of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, by Deborah Brautigam, Economic Record 87, no. 278 (2011): 501–2.

[14] Suresh George, review of The Dragon’s Gift. The Real Story of China in Africa, by Deborah Brautigam, Regional Studies 45, no. 6 (June 1, 2011): 870–72.

[15] See Boone and Doshi, “The China Model in Africa”; Sam Moyo, “Perspectives on South-South Relations: China’s Presence in Africa,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 17, no. 1 (January 2, 2016): 58–67.

[16] See Ling Li, “China’s Manufacturing Locus in 2025: With a Comparison of ‘Made-in-China 2025’ and ‘Industry 4.0,’” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 135 (October 1, 2018): 66–74.

[17] See Cheney, “China’s Digital Silk Road”; Yu Hong, Networking China: The Digital Transformation of the Chinese Economy (University of Illinois Press, 2017); Yu Hong, “Reading the 13th Five-Year Plan: Reflections on China’s ICT Policy,” International Journal of Communication 11 (April 14, 2017): 1755–1774; Hong Shen, “Building a Digital Silk Road? Situating the Internet in China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” International Journal of Communication 12, no. 0 (June 29, 2018): 2683–2701.

[18] Gianluigi Negro, “Chinese Internet Companies Go Global: Online Traffic, Framing and Open Issues,” in Chinese Social Media: Social, Cultural, and Political Implications (New York: Routledge, 2017).

[19] See Yang Jiang, Aki Tonami, and Adam Fejerskov, “Chinese Investment in Overseas Telecommunications Infrastructure,” Nuclear Power and Telecommunications (Danish Institute for International Studies, 2016): 29-43.

[20] See Wang, Bar, and Hong, “ICT Aid Flows From China to African Countries”; “China’s Telecommunications Footprint in Africa,” in China in Africa: A Strategic Overview (IDE – JETRO, 2009).

[21] Lishan Adam, “Understanding What is Happening in ICT in Ethiopia” (Research ICT Africa, 2012), 4.

[22] CARI, “China-Africa Foreign Direct Investment Data.”

[23] CARI, “China-Africa Foreign Direct Investment Data”; “China-Africa Annual Trade Data, Country by Country, 1992-2018,” Excel data (Johns Hopkins China Africa Research Initiative (CARI), February 2020).

[24] “Information and Communication Technologies (ICT),” UNESCO Institute of Statistics, May 2, 2017.

[25] “E-Strategies: National Information and Communication Infrastructure: Best Practices and Lessons Learnt” (Addis Ababa: United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, November 2007), 2.

[26] “E-Strategies,” 2.

[27] Wang, Bar, and Hong, “ICT Aid Flows From China to African Countries.”

[28] “Facts and Figures 2019,” (Geneva: ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau, 2019), 1.

[29] “Facts and Figures 2019,” 5.

[30] Ewan Sutherland, “China and Africa: Alternative Telecommunication Policies and Practices,” The African Journal of Information and Communication, no. 17 (2016): 165–95.

[31] “Global Investments in R&D” (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, June 2019), 2.

[32] “World Development Indicators: Science and Technology,” (The World Bank Group, 2017).

[33] John Forje and Yazini April, “Rethinking Africa’s Development Through Science and Technology: A Partnership Opportunity for South Africa and China,” in Perspectives on South Africa-China Relations at 15 Years (Africa Institute of South Africa, 2014), 89.

[34] Michael Enowbi Batuo, “The Role of Telecommunications Infrastructure in the Regional Economic Growth of Africa,” The Journal of Developing Areas 49, no. 1 (2015): 322.

[35] “China – ICT Goods Exports” (Trading Economics, May 2020).

[36] Yu Hong, “Reading the 13th Five-Year Plan: Reflections on China’s ICT Policy,” International Journal of Communication 11 (April 14, 2017), 1768.

[37] “Country ICT Data,” Excel data (ITU, 2019).

[38] “China – ICT Goods Exports”.

[39] “‘十三五’国家信息化规划 (13th Five-Year Plan for National Informatization)” (State Council of the People’s Republic of China, December 15, 2016).

[40] Shen, “Building a Digital Silk Road?”

[41] “13th Five-Year Plan.”

[42] See Iginio Gagliardone, Nicole Stremlau, and Daniel Nkrumah, “Partner, Prototype or Persuader?: China’s Renewed Media Engagement with Ghana,” 2012; “China’s Telecommunications Footprint in Africa.”

[43] Joe Brock and Stella Mapenzauswa, “China’s Xi Cheers African Leaders with Pledge of $60 Billion for Development,” Reuters, December 4, 2015.

[44] Jiang, Tonami, and Fejerskov, “Chinese Investment in Overseas Telecommunications Infrastructure,” 38.

[45] “Huawei,” dossier (Statista, 2020).

[46] Jiang, Tonami, and Fejerskov, “Chinese Investment in Overseas Telecommunications Infrastructure,” 39; Wang, Bar, and Hong, “ICT Aid Flows From China to African Countries,” 1502.

[47] Jiang, Tonami, and Fejerskov, “Chinese Investment in Overseas Telecommunications Infrastructure,” 49.

[48] See “Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE” (U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Intelligence, October 8, 2012).

[49] Emily Stewart, “The US Government’s Battle with Chinese Telecom Giant Huawei, Explained,” Vox, December 11, 2018.

[50] Simon Denyer, “Japan Effectively Bans China’s Huawei and ZTE from Government Contracts, Joining U.S.,” The Washington Post, December 10, 2018.

[51] H. Plecher, “GDP Growth Rate in Ethiopia 2021,” Statista, May 2020; “World Development Indicators: Science and Technology.”

[52] “Human Development Report 2019” (United Nations Development Programme, 2019).

[53] Adam, “Understanding What Is Happening in ICT in Ethiopia;” Téwodros W. Workneh, “Chinese Multinationals in the Ethiopian Telecommunications Sector,” Communication, Culture & Critique 9, no. 1 (March 2016), 127.

[54] See “The National Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Policy and Strategy” (Addis Ababa: The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, September 2016).

[55] “The National ICT Policy,” 11-12.

[56] “Country ICT Data.”

[57] H. Plecher, “Most Important Import Partners of Ethiopia 2017,” Statista, July 22, 2019; H. Plecher, “Most Important Export Partners for Ethiopia in 2017,” Statista, July 22, 2019.

[58] Workneh, “Chinese Multinationals in the Ethiopian Telecommunications Sector,” 128-29.

[59] A. Dreher et al., “AidData’s Global Chinese Official Finance Dataset, 2000-2014,” Excel data (Williamsburg: AidData, October 2017).

[60] Lili Zhao, “Contributing to the Development of Ethiopia with Wisdom and Strength,” ZTE, June 12, 2009.

[61] Aaron Maasho, “Ethiopia Signs $700 Mln Mobile Network Deal with China’s Huawei,” Reuters, July 25, 2013.

[62] “China’s Huawei to Make More Contribution in 2020 to ICT Capacity Building in Ethiopia,” Xinhua, February 17, 2020.

[63] Xuequan Mu, “Alibaba, Ethiopia Sign MoU on EWTP to Boost Digital Economy,” Xinhua, November 25, 2019.

[64] Adam, “Understanding What Is Happening in ICT in Ethiopia,” 15.

[65] Adam, “Understanding What Is Happening in ICT in Ethiopia,” 15.

[66] “The National ICT Policy.”

[67] “The National ICT Policy.”

[68] “China’s Huawei to Make More Contribution in 2020 to ICT Capacity Building in Ethiopia.”

[69] Workneh, “Chinese Multinationals in the Ethiopian Telecommunications Sector,” 131-32.

[70] “Surveillance and State Control in Ethiopia – Civil Society Under Assault: Repression and Responses in Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 18, 2017.

[71] “Surveillance and State Control in Ethiopia.”

[72] Workneh, “Chinese Multinationals in the Ethiopian Telecommunications Sector,” 140-41.

[73] Alison Gillwald, Mpho Moyo, and Christopher Stork, “Understanding What Is Happening in ICT in South Africa,” Evidence for ICT Policy Action (Cape Town: Research ICT Africa, 2012), 1.

[74] H. Plecher, “GDP in South Africa 2024” (Statista, November 25, 2019); H. Plecher, “GDP Growth Rate in South Africa 2024” (Statista, November 25, 2019).

[75] “GDP Africa” (Trading Economics, 2020).

[76] “Human Development Report 2019”; “World Development Indicators: Science and Technology.”

[77] Gillwald, Moyo, and Stork, “Understanding What Is Happening in ICT in South Africa.”

[78] Gillwald, Moyo, and Stork, “Understanding What Is Happening in ICT in South Africa,” 3.

[79] Gillwald, Moyo, and Stork, “Understanding What Is Happening in ICT in South Africa,” 75.

[80] H. Plecher, “Most Important Export Partners for South Africa in 2017” (Statista, July 23, 2019); H. Plecher, “Most Important Import Partners of South Africa 2017” (Statista, July 23, 2019); “China-Africa Trade Data.”

[81] Benjamin Tsui, “Do Huawei’s Training Programs and Centers Transfer Skills to Africa?” (Washington, D.C.: China Africa Research Initiative, 2016).

[82] Tsui, “Do Huawei’s Training Programs,” 1.

[83] June Sun, “Technology Transfer in Telecommunications: Barriers and Opportunities in the Case of Huawei and ZTE in South Africa” (China Africa Research Initiative, 2016), 2.

[84] Dreher et al., “Global Chinese Finance Dataset.”

[85] “2018 Sustainability Report” (Huawei Investment & Holding Co., Ltd., 2018).

[86] Liu Guijin, “Fifteen Years of South Africa-China Relations and Beyond,” in Perspectives on South Africa-China Relations at 15 Years (South Africa: Africa Institute of South Africa, 2014), 26–37.

[87] Sun, “Technology Transfer in Telecommunications,” 3.

[88] See Liu, “Fifteen Years of South Africa-China Relations and Beyond,” 26–37. 

[89] “ICT Policy Review Recommendations and Implementation Plan: Briefing by Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services & Panel Members” (Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, 2015).

[90] Idris Abubakar, “Huawei Launches Free 5G Courses at Two Popular South African Universities,” Technext, May 28, 2019; Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, “Huawei Reveals Massive 5G, 4IR Training Ambitions in SA,” ITWeb, August 22, 2019; “Vodacom to Launch 5G Services in South Africa in 2020,” Reuters, February 4, 2020.

[91] Forje and April, “Rethinking Africa’s Development Through Science and Technology,” 92-97.

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