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April 17, 2013

Blog: ZTE building a bright future all over the continent

By Bronwyn Seaborne

I’m told that it’s common practice for people to submit “gift wish lists” to people travelling in our office. Before heading off to Ethiopia I was presented with one. The list started with one athlete and ended with a locally produced wine called Tej. I enquired about the athlete and was told that Ethiopia was known for being home to some of the world’s greatest runners and one would come in useful to ‘run’ errands in the office. The wine had no more of a logical explanation except that “google was a wonderful thing and if you search Ethiopia+alcohol that’s what comes up”, according to one colleague.  Armed with my dubious list and a couple more stereotypes, I boarded a plane to attend an international technology conference in the East African country.

After a 6 hour flight and the usual struggle to get professional equipment through customs, I took a bus to the hotel. The streets of Addis Ababa flashed by and amidst informal houses, shops, traders and businesses, high-rise international hotels declared their presence with shiny new buildings and signs. The contrast seemed to epitomise what Ethiopia is trying to achieve by playing host to international conferences like the one I was to attend. Attracting foreign investment is one way to achieve growth and leave behind almost 3 decades of civil war.

With china’s two-way trade with Africa at $166 billion in 2011 which is three times the 2006 amount, they seem to be the new forerunners in investing in the continent. And who can blame them? Africa is home to 15% of the world’s population and growth on the continent is expected to rise to as much as 7% by 2015. Ethiopia is taking a slice of the pie and Chinese firm ZTE is taking advantage of every opportunity.

The entrance to the conference is plastered with ZTE banners. Each sign shows a different product that ZTE has developed and how those products will uniquely benefit African companies and governments. It’s not long after being confronted by all this information that ZTE hears I am from the media and I am offered the opportunity to sit down with the head of their African division.

He explains that ZTE has been in Africa for the past 15 years and continues to see opportunities. In somewhat broken English he says “We believe we can provide advanced technologies and co-operate with operators and governments to build a bright future for Africa”

Once the interview is over, I am able to chat to some of the other ZTE employees and they tell me that they are constantly travelling throughout Africa. They feel it’s necessary to meet with people and develop relationships. ZTE says that it faced big challenges when it first came to Africa due to differences in culture. One ZTE representative explained that they needed to understand local culture so that they could train and develop local staff. A parting comment from ZTE as I gathered up our cameras was “We’ll see you again; we’re all over the continent now”.

Two days later and I was back in Johannesburg. Needless to say I arrived empty handed. I could find neither an athlete nor the famous local wine. What I did find however was an e-mail from ZTE inviting me to the next conference they were to attend in South Africa and a detailed programme of where they would be going after that conference and the conference after that.

Bronwyn is a producer at CNBC Africa. She often travels the continent to report on various development stories. Her passion is to tell Africa’s stories through the voices of Africans. Bronwyn is also currently reading for her Masters in Journalism at Wits University through the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project.

Watch Bronwyn's reporting from the 11th Innovation Africa Digital Summit - Part 1 on Youtube

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