Dr Jane Munga

Jane Munga: "Developing a vibrant tech ecosystem in Africa will put the continent on the path to digital sovereignty"

Dr Jane Munga is a digital policy expert and a fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Jane leads the work on technology policy in the Africa program. Her career has focused on policymaking emphasising the potential of digital technologies for digital transformation. Jane has previously worked for the Government of Kenya as an Advisor in the Ministry of ICT Innovation and Youth Affairs, Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Interior. She also served as an Economic Expert at the National Communications Secretariat, an ICT policy advisory body for the Government of Kenya where she focused on developing digital economy policies and regulations, which included Kenya’s Digital Economy Blueprint for Africa, and designing digital transformation programs for the Government of Kenya.

This interview is also available in French.

What are the dynamics of the US-China technology decoupling in Africa? How is it affecting the continent?

The tensions between the United States and China over digital technologies are growing with wide-ranging implications for Africa’s digital economy on issues from infrastructure and platforms to hardware devices. Like other regions of the world, African countries must contend with the ramifications of great power competition in their digital agenda. African nations, however, must navigate the prospects of such decoupling alongside China’s substantive investments and dominance in telecommunications infrastructure.

The same tension between the US and China over technology has given rise to techno-nationalist approaches in which each party contests to promote ideological values through the reshaping of institutions and standards. Both the US and China have launched initiatives to counter each other’s influence. The US has put in place export control measures that limit trade between the country and China. In return, the Chinese government introduced several measures to counter US restrictions. African countries rely heavily on imported technology from both sides however with greater investments from China. For example, Africa, a mobile-first continent, connects to the internet primarily through mobile phones. About 70 percent of Africans access the internet using mobile devices. A large share of these mobile phones is from vendors incorporated in China. Out of the forty-two vendors with market share in the continent, nineteen are incorporated in China, while just four are incorporated in the United States. Chinese brands not only have a larger market share but also offer variety with options for phones specifically designed for African consumers.

Given this background, the ramifications of U.S.-China technology decoupling will have repercussions for African consumers. Some mobile users are already feeling the effects of technology decoupling. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security added Huawei and its affiliates to its Entity List. The list designates foreign organisations with restrictions on their ability to export specified items to the United States. The addition of Huawei to the Entity List hinders the company from trading with U.S. tech companies such as Google and those in the markets of U.S. trading partners without U.S. government approval. Google was prohibited from including Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube, or the Play Store on Huawei phones. Mobile phone users with Huawei devices manufactured after 2019 must thus contend with limited accessibility to key mobile applications, depleting the digital dividends of such devices for millions of Africans across the continent.

Beyond restricting access to mobile apps, U.S.-China technology decoupling has made for vibrant policy conversations, especially on the future of the internet. As debates on internet standards unfold in multilateral organisations such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), African policymakers must engage in digital foreign policy. For example, at the ITU’s Telecommunication Standardisation Advisory Group meeting in 2019, China Mobile, China Unicom, Huawei, and the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology proposed the standardisation of a new set of internet protocols (dubbed “New IP”), which would support a new internet by 2030. Ten African countries, a cohesive front from the continent, supported the proposal. The proposal on “New IP” slowed when the World Telecommunication Standardisation Assembly was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the conversation on the future of the internet has continued to elicit debate, studies, and political alignments, causing African countries to engage more disparately and cautiously on the matter. This is evident from the U.S.-led Declaration for the Future of the Internet, which garnered just three African signatories (Cabo Verde, Kenya, and Niger), though one of those countries (Kenya) stated its signature was added prematurely before government officials reached an official decision.

No doubt the cyberspace is a major arena, where US-China technology decoupling will take centre stage. African countries will have to contend with the fragmentation of the internet considering that China and the US telecom companies are the leading providers of ICT infrastructures on the African continent, with Chinese ICT firms, Huawei and ZTE accounting for building more than 70% of the ICT infrastructure on the African continent.

How can African actors best navigate the prospects of such decoupling?

African countries can diversify manufacturing and technology supply chains. For example, African businesses can effectively engage in the smartphone-manufacturing industry, to help meet the rising demand of its burgeoning population. Currently, the continent’s large demand for mobile phones is met through imports. There have been several attempts by African countries, such as Rwanda and South Africa, to manufacture smartphones, but large-scale success has yet to be achieved. However, new endeavours continue to launch; for example, Kenya has launched a smartphone assembly plant. Efforts to kickstart smartphone manufacturing in Africa should seek to build regional value chains. Recent research by the African Union—“Made by Africa, Creating Value Through Integration”—examines the vast potential of multi-country integrated value chains in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, apparel, and automobiles for economic diversification and job creation in Africa. Thus, the manufacturing of affordable smartphones can similarly aim to build regional value chains. African governments and businesses can participate in the smartphone manufacturing process at national and regional levels and examine ways of leveraging the African Continental Free Trade Agreement to advance the continent’s industrialisation process and safeguard from technology decoupling effects. This would also ultimately reduce Africa’s dependency to Chinese imports and promote supplier diversity.

What does this tell us about the need for more local technology innovation and local data ownership?

To cultivate a truly robust digital economy, African countries must invest in developing their own digital industry and this starts with local digital products. Africa needs a digital industry built by Africans for Africa. African states must move from being passive recipients of blueprints developed elsewhere and build their ICT sectors with locally developed solutions. Indigenous tech products are crucial to establish digital sovereignty, enable policy control, and drive economic growth. A homegrown digital industry will focus on solving challenges specific to African nations by providing locally tailored solutions. They also create high-skill job opportunities and help retain talent.

Africa has been termed as continent rich in resources, bursting with innovative ideas, and blessed with a huge youthful population, who are regarded as the continent’s untapped potential. These youth are powering the innovative ecosystem in the continent with Africa’s 400 technology hubs in 42 countries. However, despite the strong entrepreneurial mindset, youthful numbers, and a growing number of tech innovations, Africa has not translated its innovative potential into a vibrant or comprehensive digital entrepreneurial ecosystem.

African governments need to develop digital economic policies that will promote innovation and create opportunities for its growing youth. Africa needs high-potential digital innovations/products, that can be scaled up to build an indigenous digital ecosystem. This can only be done through a healthy innovation ecosystem that will help harness the power of technology to grow innovative ideas to scale. Developing a vibrant tech ecosystem in Africa will put the continent on the path to digital sovereignty: building the technology and setting the rules that will shape its future. By investing in indigenous digital industry, African governments and businesses can accelerate digital transformation on their own terms. The future is digital, and the time for Africa to shape its own digital destiny is now. African tech providers are best positioned to deliver the infrastructure for Africa's digital revolution. By keeping the digital industry within the continent, they enable a faster digital transformation, lower costs – paving the way for African businesses and consumers to fully utilize and benefit from technology.

This interview is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships: interview series led by Dr Folashade Soule with African senior policymakers, ministers, private and civic actors to shed a light on how African actors build, negotiate and manage strategic partnerships in the digital sector in a context of geopolitical rivalry. The series is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships policy research project hosted at the Global Economic Governance programme (University of Oxford) and supported by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).