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Like it or Not, Huawei is the Indispensable Tech Company in Africa


[EDITOR’S NOTE: This episode was recorded before the United States government announced that it would blacklist Huawei and blocked the company from using Google’s Android operating system and other apps.]

It is hard to overstate Huawei’s singular importance in the development of Africa’s information technology sector. Over the past ten years the company, often armed with state-backed loans from China, has built significant portions of Africa’s IT infrastructure, everything from networking to broadband connectivity to new cloud data centers in places like Egypt and South Africa. 70% of all 4G networks across the continent were reportedly built by Huawei.

But while Huawei’s presence in Africa is pervasive it’s also controversial. Allegations that Huawei was involved in Chinese spying efforts against the African Union prompt similar questions like those being raised by the United States who challenge the company’s independence from both the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government.

“The U.S. is going to have to be strategic about how they approach this challenge. You can’t just blunder in and say, ‘It’s us or them.’ China does provide things that the continent needs.” — Joshua Meservey, Heritage Foundation senior analyst

Although African stakeholders contend that security and privacy concerns surrounding Huawei are important, most do not believe they are paramount issues. Instead, access to affordable, high-quality telecommunications infrastructure is much more important.

But now that the United States is closing in on the company, blocking Huawei from using the Android operating system, African telecom operators are likely starting to worry about what happens if Washington similarly blacklists Huawei’s use of components that are used in all that networking gear now running their phone and data networks.

If Huawei is forced out of those markets, it could be cataclysmic for African telcos who would find it difficult, if not impossible, to switch to American, Korean or European vendors.

The bottom line is that African telecommunications operators now rely on Huawei gear, making the Chinese company truly indispensable in the operation of their networks.

Huawei, like almost every Chinese company, is notoriously averse to interacting with the media and rarely grants extended, on the record interviews with no pre-conditions.  So, it was a bit of a surprise when Adam Lane, senior public affairs director for Huawei Kenya, offered to appear on the podcast. He joins Eric & Cobus for a wide-ranging discussion on all aspects of the company’s operations in Africa and what the mood is like inside the firm.

Show Notes:

 
 
At Huawei since 2014, and based in Nairobi since 2016, Adam is currently responsible for working with governments, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, the media and other stakeholders with a focus on the Kenya and East Africa region. Adam helps these groups understand how to use ICT for Development in their strategies, policies and programs; as well as developing partnerships and cross-sector collaboration with various actors in the ICT ecosystem including social enterprises. Adam has a strong focus on digital health in the region and is also actively engaging with those in the Internet of Things space.
 
Previously, Adam was based in Huawei’s HQ as a Director for Corporate Sustainable Development responsible for Huawei’s global flagship project to bridge the digital divide as well as thought leadership on the digital divide. In 2015 after an extensive research effort around the world, Adam published Huawei’s white paper on Digital Enablement summarizing the challenges and solutions to bridging the digital divide (www.huawei.com/minisite/digital-enablement). He then set-up a new digital divide project related to e-health in Kenya building on the findings from this white paper working with a Kenyan social enterprise and helping them scale up their e-health project.
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