Sunday, November 23, 2014
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The “Browning” of African Technology

Forget MIT. Hello, Tsing Hua University. For Clothilde Tingiri, a hot young programmer at Rwanda’s top software company, dreams of Beijing, not Cambridge, animate her ambitions. Desperate for more education, this fall she plans to attend graduate school for computer science – in China, not America.

The Chinese are no strangers to Rwanda. Near Tingiri’s office, Rwanda’s largest telecom company, Rwandatel, is installing new wireless telephony equipment made by Huawei of Shenzen. Africa boasts the world’s fastest-growing market for wireless telephony, and Huawei – with offices in 14 African countries – is running away with the business, sending scores of engineers into the bush to bring a new generation of low-cost technology to some of the planet’s poorest people.

Motivated by profit and market share rather than philanthropy, Huawei is outpacing American and European rivals through lower prices, faster action, and a greater willingness to work in difficult environments. According to Chris Lundh, the American chief of Rwandatel, “That’s the way things work in Africa now. The Chinese do it all.”

Well, not quite. Across sub-Saharan Africa, engineers from India – armed with appropriate technologies honed in their home market – are also making their mark. India supplies Africa with computer-education courses, the most reliable water pumps, low-cost rice-milling equipment, and dozens of other technologies.

The sudden influx of Chinese and Indian technologies represents the “browning” of African technology, which has long been the domain of “white” Americans and Europeans who want to apply their saving hand to African problems.

“It is a tectonic shift to the East with shattering implications,” says Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor at Harvard University who advises the African Union on technology policy.

One big change is in education. There are roughly 2,000 African students in China, most of whom are pursuing engineering and science courses. According to Juma, that number is expected to double over the next two years, making China “Africa’s leading destination for science and engineering education.”

The “browning” of technology in Africa is only in its infancy, but the shift is likely to accelerate. Chinese and Indian engineers hail from places that have much more in common with nitty-gritty Africa than comfortable Silicon Valley or Cambridge. Africa also offers a testing ground for Asian-designed technologies that are not yet ready for US or European markets.

A good example is a solar-powered cooking stove from India, which has experimented with such stoves for decades. Wood-burning stoves are responsible for much of Africa’s deforestation, and, in many African cities, where wood accounts for the majority of cooking fuel, its price is soaring. The Indian stove is clearly a work-in-progress; it is too bulky and not durable enough to survive the rigors of an African village. But with India’s vast internal market, many designers have an incentive to improve it. How many designers in America or Europe can say the same?

Of course, technology transfer from China and India could be a mere smokescreen for a new “brown imperialism” aimed at exploiting African oil, food, and minerals. In recent years, China’s government alone has invested billions of dollars in African infrastructure and resource extraction, raising suspicions that a new scramble for Africa is underway.

But Africans genuinely need foreign technology, and the Chinese, in particular, are pushing hard – even flamboyantly – to fill the gap. This year, Nigeria’s government bought a Chinese-made satellite, and even paid the Chinese to launch it into space in May. China was so eager to provide space technology to Africa’s most populous country that it beat out 21 other bidders for a contract worth $300 million.

China’s technology inroads are usually less dramatic, but no less telling. In African medicine, Chinese herbs and pharmaceuticals are quietly gaining share. For example, the Chinese-made anti-malarial drug artesunate has become part of the standard treatment within just a few years.

Likewise, Chinese mastery over ultra-small, cheap “micro-hydro” dams, which can generate tiny amounts of electricity from mere trickles of water, appeals to power-short, river-rich Africans. Tens of thousands of micro-hydro systems operate in China, and nearly none in Africa.

Americans do-gooders like Nicholas Negroponte, with his $100 laptop, have identified the right problem: Africa is way behind technologically and rapid leap-frogging is possible. But Chinese and Indian scientists argue that Africa can benefit from a changing of the technological guard. They may be right.

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