The growing population of the African continent is increasingly connecting to the Internet. Between 2019 and 2021, internet use in Africa increased by 23 percent. However, only about 33 percent of the population are active Internet users, which leaves a valued 900 million people without the digital dividends of the web. While several factors contribute to Africa’s digital divide, the prospect of technological decoupling between the United States and China could create additional complexities that could affect the digital transformation of African countries, while the two main world economies are considering untying or relocating at least some technology-related supply chains. .
Tensions between the United States and China over digital technologies are rising with broad implications for Africa’s digital economy on issues ranging from infrastructure and platforms to hardware devices. Like other parts of the world, the continent faces the ramifications of great power competition for its digital agenda. African nations, however, must navigate the prospects of such decoupling alongside China. substantial investments and the dominance of the telecommunications infrastructure.
Africa, a mobile-centric continent, connects to the Internet primarily through mobile phones. About 70% of Africans access the internet using mobile devices (see Figure 1) rather than desktop computers or tablets.
A large portion of these cell phones come from suppliers incorporated in China (see Figure 2). Of the forty-two vendors with market share in the mainland, nineteen are incorporated in China, while only four are incorporated in the United States. Chinese brands not only have a larger market share, but also offer a variety of options for phones specifically designed for African consumers. Among the Chinese options, Huawei and Tecno are the most popular mobile phone brands. Tecno, a brand rarely known outside the mainland, was specifically created by Chinese company Transsion to enter the African market. Its characteristics take into account local nuances in terms of technical design, such as the clarity of the image of the cameras for darker skin tones, and pricing.
In this context, it is clear that the ramifications of technological decoupling between the United States and China will have repercussions for African consumers. Some mobile users are already feeling the effects of technological decoupling. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security added Huawei and its subsidiaries to its List of entities. The list designates foreign organizations with restrictions on their ability to export specified items to the United States. Adding Huawei to the Entity List prevents the company from doing business with U.S. technology companies such as Google and those in U.S. Trading Partner Markets without U.S. government approval. Google was prohibited to include Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube or the Play Store on Huawei phones. Mobile phone users with Huawei devices manufactured after 2019 therefore face limited accessibility to key mobile applications, reducing the digital dividends of these devices for millions of Africans across the continent.
Beyond restricting access to mobile apps, the technological decoupling between the United States and China has enabled lively political conversations, particularly about the future of the internet. As debates over internet standards unfold in multilateral organizations such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), African policymakers must engage in a digital foreign policy. For example, at the ITU Telecommunication Standardization Advisory Group meeting in 2019, China Mobile, China Unicom, Huawei, and the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology proposed the standardization of a new set of Internet protocols (double “New IP”), which would support a new Internet by 2030. Ten African countries, a cohesive front of the continent, supported the proposal. The “new IP” proposal slowed when the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the conversation about the future of the Internet has continued to spark debate, studies, and political alignments, pushing African countries to engage in a more disparate and cautious way on the issue. This is clear from the American leadership Declaration for the Future of the Internetwhich only received three African signatories (Cabo Verde, Kenya and Niger), even if one of these countries (Kenya) said his signature was added prematurely before government officials made an official decision.
Even though the US-China decoupling debate continues for Chinese and US companies, there is still a lot to do in the mainland’s telecommunications industry, especially when it comes to mobile technology. The demand for mobile devices on the continent is expected to rise alongside increasing internet access, presenting immense opportunities for telecommunications companies. Africa being a mobile-centric continent, the mobile economy is expected to continue contributing to the socio-economic growth of the continent. Mobile technology in sub-Saharan Africa is projected boost economic activity by $155 billion by 2025, rising to a total of $130 billion in 2020 (representing an 8% share of GDP). In the same Global System for Mobile Communications report, estimates show that sub-Saharan Africa will have 120 million new mobile subscribers by 2025 (an increase from 495 million in 2020 to 615 million), a shift largely driven by the continent’s growing young population. The UN has predicted that by 2040, the people of africa will increase by 50%. Of the wider population, the majority (53%) will be under the age of twenty-five. This young population will drive demand for mobile phones and create opportunities for US mobile companies to increase their market share in African economies.
The recently launched American strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa outlines a new American vision for the region. One of the main thrusts of the strategy is to strengthen trade and commercial relations with African countries; it lists digital transformation as one of the approaches that “both align with and respond to American priorities. . . needs of African partners. The strategy provides a springboard for US tech giants to deliver affordable mobile devices to African consumers and thereby support the African Union Digital Transformation Strategy for Africasmart africa Digital Economy Master Planand other national digital strategies from across the continent.
The African mobile market is one area where technology decoupling between the United States and China will be evident, an industry at the heart of Africa’s digital transformation. The demand for mobile devices across the continent will allow mobile phone providers to shape the way millions of Africans connect to the internet and access digital services. This latent demand also means that Africa projected population of 2.5 billion people by 2050 could shape the future of these global tech companies.