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July 18, 2018

How China is restructuring Cameroon’s burgeoning digital economy sector

By Cameroon journalist Amindeh Blaise Atabong, first published on Journal du

Cameroon is determined to become a middle-income country by 2035. To achieve this lofty vision, it has elaborated a Growth and Employment Strategy Paper (GESP) with the development of information and communications technology outlined as a strategic priority. In its drive to make the country a veritable tech hub and multiply by 50, the number of direct and indirect jobs in ICT between 2010 and 2020, the government has jerked into seriously investing in digital infrastructure.

Cameroonian labourers work on a Chinese project, digging trenches to bury optic fibre cables in the city of Yaounde. Photo by Amindeh Blaise Atabong.

And for better or worse, China has been shepherding the Central African nation into its digital future. China’s building spree of giant projects funded by Chinese government and banks or whose execution is being carried out by Chinese companies is conspicuous across Cameroon.

Talk of Chinese intervention in the country and one will readily pinpoint projects in the likes of the Kumba-Mamfe road, the ongoing Yaounde-Douala double carriage way, the Lom Panga, Memve’ele and Mekin hydroelectricity dams, the Yaounde multipurpose sports complex, ministerial buildings in the capital city, amongst others. But out of sight, the Chinese are also building Cameroon’s burgeoning digital economy sector which had been lagging behind as compared to other African countries due to want of network infrastructure and the high cost of devices to consumers.

Experts in China-Africa relations suggest Chinese intervention in the IT sector in Cameroon is rapidly growing and has the potential to have a much bigger impact on people’s daily lives than the billions of dollars of conventional infrastructure they are constructing.

Internet Backbone

Few years ago, Chinese company, Huawei Marine, engaged in laying down high capacity submarine optic fibre cables. Known as Nigeria-Cameroon Submarine Cable System (NCSCS), the optic fibre cable runs from Kribi in Cameroon to the Main One landing station in Lagos in Nigeria; which has been linking Nigeria to Europe since 2012.The submarine cable network has a speed of 3.8Tbits/s and was put in place thanks to a loan from the Exim Bank of China.

When the landing station of NCSCS was being commissioned in Kribi in January 2016, the then Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, Jean Pierre Biyiti Bi Essam said “NCSCS will enable us [Cameroon] to have an alternative connection to the world” and boost the country’s extremely low fixed broadband penetration, estimated then at about 5 per cent.

Again, in May 2018, Huawei Marine, partnering with China Unicom and Cameroon Telecommunications (Camtel) began laying the 6,000km-long South Atlantic Inter Link (SAIL) cable system from Kribi in Cameroon to Fortaleza in Brazil. SAIL which will be the first cable system to directly connect Africa and South America is modelled using Huawei Marine’s advanced 100G technology and will have a capacity of 32Tbits/s once completed, officials of the Chinese company said.

“Today, Cameroon uses about 60 gigabits per second, making us to browse 400 times slower than when we will be at 32 terabits per second,” says Pierre Paul Njonga, Coordinator of Cameroon’s National Broadband II Programme. With the Chinese-built SAIL, Pierre Paul notes that navigating the internet will be much secure, smoother, easier and faster, bringing about economic benefits.

Huawei has also been the Chinese company putting in place Cameroon’s lone optic fibre backbone managed by the state-owned corporation – Camtel, across the national territory. The optic fibre backbone has connected the different towns of the country, universities and other public structures. Mobile telephony network service providers operating in the country, including Orange Cameroun, MTN Cameroon and Nexttel (Cameroonian subsidiary of Viettel), have had to rely on it to provide 3G/4G mobile internet services to their subscribers.

Made In China

In the last eight years, Chinese mobile phone manufacturers like Tecno Mobile, Huawei, Itel, LG, ZTE, Oppo, OnePlus and a myriad of others have been overwhelming the Cameroonian market with affordable smart phones, giving thousands of people the incentive to go online for the first time. Many people have parted company with their well-worn analogue phones in favour of the android devices fabricated by China.

Akoa Paul, 43, a cocoa farmer in Muyengue; a small village on the leeward side of Mount Cameroon, said he acquired his first smart phone in 2014. “I bought the Chinese phone at the cost of FCFA 24, 0000 [about US$42] from the sale of my produce,” Akoa Paul disclosed, noting that it was the first time in his entire life he ever accessed the internet.

Cameroon internet penetration now stands at 37.71 per cent, up from less than 1 per cent in 2000, according to the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Board (ART). Statistics by the regulator indicates that over 40 per cent of the close to 18 million internet users in the country get connected by phone. And the contribution of Chinese-made phones in achieving this fast penetration rate cannot be undermined.

The availability of Chinese smart devices even in remote areas and the affordability by the less privileged has been changing the lives of many, especially in rural areas. They use it for their own sustainable development. In Cameroon’s rainforest in the East region, locals are using cheap Chinese smartphones to take on illegal logging and the corruption that breeds it. They used the satellite-connected devices to harvest evidence of trees fell down in restricted areas, and then report cases of suspicion to forestry officials as well as the anti-graft agency.

In addition, people in the north of Cameroon are using such phones to fight maternal mortality and climate change, while the Chinese phones are also serving internally displaced persons in a ‘Cash Transfer’ scheme by mobile money implemented by the EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid.

Multiple Impact

Besides getting people connected everywhere, the ‘Made in China’ electronic gadgets have offered hundreds of opportunities to Cameroon’s desperate unemployed youths. Be they sales persons or repairers, the young people now have hope thanks to the presence of Chinese smart devices in the Cameroonian market. At Ancien 3eme; a hotspot for the sale and repair of mobile phones in the port city of Douala, Laurent Serge Etoga Etoga tells this reporter “China has changed my life” as he brushes through the chassis of a Chinese-made phone. “This new-found trade saved me from engaging in the perilous journey through the Sahara Desert to Europe,” says the young phone repairer specialized in Itel phones.

China’s Huawei has stamped its mark on Cameroon’s digital landscape, being responsible for all the mobile broadband modems in the country. Otto Akama, a young techie in the city of Buea says their devices make it easier to sign up to multiple telecoms services. “In fact, the main thing is that their devices are affordable,” he quipped.

Though Achia Rolence Aka holds China has not provided any direct assistance to help their emerging tech ecosystem – Silicon Mountain – in Buea, he however agrees China has been a major player for the growth of the nation’s digital sphere. “Their partnership with most telecommunications companies; providing them hardware like modems and base stations, have eased access to internet,” Achia reiterated. Being an alumnus of the University of Buea, the computer engineer disclosed that the Chinese company Huawei has a program with the university whereby students go to China for intensive training in IT.

Officials launch work to implant submarine optic fibre cables to directly link Africa, from Kribi in Cameroon, to South America, in Fortaleza in Brazil. Photo by Amindeh Blaise Atabong.

According to Wu Jing, Director of Public Relations at Huawei Cameroon, their company is present and active in Cameroon because the country is at the heart of Central Africa and by so has certain advantages. He also cites the talents Cameroonians have in the use of ICTs and the support of President Paul Biya to position ICTs as the accelerator of the economy. “Our motivation isto satisfy operators and the final consumers,” says Wu Jing, who adds that, like other enterprises, they are still facing many difficulties in doing business in Cameroon.

One Student, One Chinese Laptop

When President Paul Biya described his country’s youths as “android generation” and later thought of gifting each registered university student a laptop to enhance learning and research, he swiftly turned to China’s Sichuan Telecommunications Construction Engineering Co. Ltd. Even the funds to produce 500,000 laptops for the students in the Chinese city of Shenzhen in Guangong Province were disbursed by the Exim Bank of China.

Branded PB HEV (Paul Biya – Higher Education Vision), each of the computers have an Intel Atom Z8350, Microsoft window 10 system and office 365 software. Jacques Fame Ndongo, Minister of Higher Education says the gift from the Head of State is to “assist students connect to the cyberspace to tap the latest knowledge and enhance their studies and assure success.”

Ayeah Gideon Gobti, a final year student of the University of Bamenda’s Higher Teacher Training College, is one of the beneficiaries of the ‘one student, one computer’ operation. He, like other students, says the laptop came at the right time. “It greatly helped me in the preparation of my final year thesis. I don’t know what I would have done without it,” Ayeah said.

Another student in the Ebolowa campus of the University of Yaounde II, who elected anonymity, said she could not have sourced about FCFA 200,000 (US$ 357) to purchase such a laptop. Now, she uses it principally to do her assignments and online research, while she distracts herself with it during leisure moments.

As part of the e-National Higher Education Network project being put in place by government, Sichuan Telecommunications Construction Engineering Company is also tasked to construct, equip and commission nine university digital development centers to facilitate e-learning and e-administration. The structures will align Cameroon with international digital teaching norms, an official of the Ministry of Higher Education said.

Cameroon’s Minister of Higher Education (right) offers a Chinese-made laptop to a university student. Photo by Amindeh Blaise Atabong.

China’s Engagements

The Asian country has not relented its drive, when solicited or not, to contribute in building Cameroon’s digital infrastructure. Cameroon public service broadcaster, CRTV, has also had to rely on China’s giant provider in television broadcasting industry – StarTimes – for its digital switch over project. Again, CRTV acquired two state-of-the-art Outside Broadcast Vans from China to optimally cover the Women Africa Cup of Nations it hosted in 2016. It technicians have also been trained by the multimedia company in China.

Again, government retained Chinese company Huawei in 2015 to put in place a telephone number portability project on behalf of three telecom operators in the country. Though number portability is yet to be put in use, Huawei has set up a centralised database, trained local technicians on its management and completed other technical aspects of the project, Wu Jing, the company’s Director of Public Relations in Cameroon, confirmed.

China, through Exim Bank, has also loaned Cameroon money to put in place its ‘e-post’ project to enhance the performance of the Cameroon Postal Services (Campost).

Friends Indeed

While it would be an exaggeration to give the Chinese government and companies all of the praise for easing Cameroon’s telecommunications revolution, it would be fair to state they have done better than any other foreign country. However, China’s all the time more indispensable role in Cameroon’s ICT sector raises a grave concern.

Bama Etienne Cham, an expert in international trade negotiations says since acceding the World Trade Organisation 10 years ago, China has been the first investor for outward direct foreign investment. Going by the expert, most of the giant Chinese companies investing abroad, including Cameroon, are government owned.

Bama holds China is facilitating Cameroon’s digital boom but questions the cost. “Looking at its sustainability, there is a need to be cautious about the quality and other impacts of these products [IT devices]. Such trading approach where all, including services, comes from China without transfer of technology is a serious call for concern. How do we sustain when we don’t have the know-how?”

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