What are Huawei’s projects in Africa? The Chinese equipment manufacturer, which has been involved for two decades on the continent, wants to develop new services in very different fields. Its leaders gave an exclusive interview to RFI. Philippe Wang, Executive Vice President of Huawei Northern Africa, and Colin Hu, President Enterprise & Cloud of Huawei Northern Africa, detail their strategy and respond to the criticisms aimed at the group.
RFI : Let’s start with the most immediate news: the food crisis affecting many countries, particularly in Africa. How Huawei Group can help foster food sovereignty and develop agricultural systems ?
Phillip Wang : This is very important for the economic and social stability of the continent. We have entered a very unstable period. Our duty is, thanks to technology, to help other manufacturers to modernize in order to be more efficient. For example, for a soil, we can evaluate what type of plant we will use. Before, it was necessary to analyze samples, it took a lot of time. Now, we can develop a sensor to analyze the components of the earth, transmit all this information in the cloud, by artificial intelligence. It will become an indispensable tool in the agricultural sector.
To develop digital in education, you need broadband connections. In Africa, it is often quite low. We saw it during the pandemic, many students had difficulty studying remotely. What can you do ?
Phillip Wang: The development of the digital economy is a social issue. To train young people in technology, we must have a solid base, a legislative framework favorable to investments, with a solid and scalable infrastructure. In mobile and fixed technologies, a cloud platform must be connected to digitize all services, in the private sector and in the public sector. It’s like a highway. If the capital or the big cities are not connected, we cannot develop the economy. It’s the same in the virtual world.
Colin Hu: We must not forget the people who have little or no connection. Over the past five years, we have worked in different countries, such as Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, to develop network coverage in rural areas. In Ghana, it rose gradually from 65% to 97%. It is a model that deserves to be replicated in the region. We are very proud of that.
Do you think Africa has fallen behind?
Phillip Wang: Africa had fallen behind, but it is catching up very quickly. We need to encourage public-private investment, which is why we are discussing with various governments and with our partners.
When we talk about infrastructure, there is a strategic point, these are submarine cables.
Phillip Wang : This is a very good question because geographically, Africa is the heart of the world. Many submarine cables already exist. But meeting the needs of 1.2 billion people requires more connectivity, more bandwidth. Needs are increasing very quickly, on average by 20 to 30% per year. We have already worked with our partners on several projects in Cameroon and Cape Verde.
Huawei is subject to strong competition around the world, and sometimes even boycotted. Is Africa for you the market with the most potential?
Phillip Wang: First of all for the boycotts, I think it’s unfair. We are not targeted for objective reasons, but rather at the political level. We’re a private company, and we don’t want to be involved. But sometimes we are forced to. For three years, we have developed thanks to the trust of our partners, and I think that we will continue in this direction. Africa still remains a strategic market for us, because its population is the youngest, and it is the new generation that will drive the future. So our philosophy is to invest now to be well positioned on this continent.
In your activity, what is the most profitable? ? Data centers ?
Colin Hu: For Huawei, data centers, data centers are very important. We are a technology provider. Africa represents only 1% of global data center capacity. It means there is great potential.
Linked to the development of data centers and the cloud, there is the question of data protection. What is Huawei doing in this area ?
Colin Hu: It’s a very sensitive issue. Data management must be supervised. Some countries already have legislation to protect them. In Europe, there is the GDPR. In Egypt, there has been a framework for two years. In Africa, 18 countries already have laws. It is a question of sovereignty. On the other hand, we must see how Africa can become an open market while protecting itself. If data cannot be transferred between countries, the market will be poorly organized, it will not be good for the economy. I’m talking about business data, not user data. We support digital sovereignty and encourage an open market.
For companies, cybersecurity has become a very strong concern. What are your investments in Africa in this area?
Colin Hu: Cybersecurity is very important for Huawei, which provides services in more than 170 countries, for all operators. These are critical activities, so we always aim for the highest quality. We help our customers and our partners to adapt technologies, by sharing experiences, processes and know-how. We have created several centers dedicated to cybersecurity and transparency. We invite our customers and partners to test their products and develop the skills of their employees.
Phillip Wang: Cybersecurity is a vital issue for the economy, due to the multiplication of attacks. What is Huawei doing? We communicate with governments. We have to be able to make suggestions, present the vision of an equipment manufacturer to improve the legislative framework. Secondly, we raise awareness among all economic players. Third, for ourselves, we analyze all the laws on the continent so that our solutions are in compliance from birth. Stimulating this market to better protect it is in the public interest.
Where are the “smart” city projects?
Colin Hu: Smart Cities were talked about a lot seven or ten years ago. But it has calmed down in recent years. In Africa, we are only at the beginning. These projects are being set up in new cities in Egypt, for example, and in other countries, with infrastructures planned from the construction of these cities. But we cannot copy these concepts in Africa, for example with garbage cans in the street that would all be connected. We must adapt smart cities to African constraints.
These projects feed suspicions of espionage against Huawei.
Colin Hu: We provide equipment and services to customers. Everything is under the control of the customers. Once the project is delivered, everything is handed over to the clients. Huawei provides technology for business and for everyone. Most are available on the market. And most are competitive, open architecture, common standards used by our customers.
Phillip Wang: To clarify our position, I would like to give an example. When a house is built, once the keys have been handed over, it is the owner who will live in it. The builder is nothing. It’s the same for the virtual highways built by Huawei. We are a solution provider. And our relationship with partners is transparent. It goes through calls for tenders, evaluated by different criteria.
Huawei provides electronic devices, infrastructure, data centers. Huawei is present in the education sector, agriculture, and even in the financial sector. This “ omnipotence can worry. What do you answer?
Colin Hu: We work in all countries, we provide telecom infrastructures to inhabitants with recent technologies, which people appreciate. In addition, we recruit locally in Africa. Over 81% of our employees are locals. We are creating this ecosystem with our partners and suppliers to create jobs, including with local partners. Most of the time, we do not work directly with consumers, but with partners, to create solutions together.
Phillip Wang: Why are we everywhere? Because our business is the platform, not a vertical market, sector by sector. To meet all needs, we want to work hand in hand with our partners. The market is big enough for everyone. It’s like the Windows system, everyone uses it and no one sees it as a threat. Because it is a very useful tool. We would love to play a role like that. Our partners who know us well know this. They see us as part of the solution, not part of the threat.
Huawei, a 20-year presence in Africa
Huawei, a twenty-year presence in Africa
Boycotted in the West, Huawei is now a key player in Africa. From Ethiopia to Morocco via Senegal and the DRC, the Chinese technological giant claims to be present in more than 50 countries, generating 20 to 30% of its turnover there. For more than twenty years, Huawei has been present on the continent with more than 9,000 employees and nearly 2,500 partners.
Even if the Chinese firm sells phones and computers, the consumer business is not the top priority for the equipment manufacturer in Africa. Its objective is to provide services to companies and governments, such as 3G and 4G networks to connect rural areas, 5G networks in cities, fiber optic and cloud solutions, data servers or even systems of cybersecurity.
Some services offered by Huawei raise concerns. Huawei Technologies has entered into agreements with several African countries as part of its “Safe City” initiative. Nairobi, the capital of Kenya and Kampala, the capital of Uganda, are equipped with street camera surveillance systems, coupled with facial recognition software. What if other objectives were hidden behind these hyperconnected cities? The firm, suspected of helping the Ugandan and Zambian governments to spy on their political opponents, denies these accusations.
With its “Huawei ICT Academy”, the Chinese giant has also invested in the education sector. It offers training centers in almost all African countries to train young talents for free. Since its launch, more than 90,000 students have received training in the advanced technology sector, such as artificial intelligence, 5G and the cloud.