Thu, Dec 27, 2007 - Page 8 News List

'Browning' the technology of Africa

By G. Pascal Zachary

FORGET THE MASSACHUSETTS institute of Technology. Hello, Tsing Hua University. For Clothilde Tingiri, a hot young programmer at Rwanda's top software company, dreams of Beijing, not Cambridge, to realize her ambitions. Desperate for more education, this fall she plans to attend graduate school in computer science -- in China, not the US.

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 US 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 the US 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.

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