China’s support can aid Africa’s smart cities drive

By Toumert AI Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/31 22:33:41

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

The African continent has been striving for the past decade to establish innovation, entrepreneurship and connectivity as pillars for sustainable development planning in the region.

Among the key elements of this strategy is the development of urban centers with key information technology tools and the integration of the concept of smart cities into African socioeconomic integration.

The Smart Africa Manifesto was announced in Kigali, Rwanda in October 2013. This policy envisioned putting information and communications technology (ICT) at the center of the national socioeconomic development agenda and leveraging ICT to promote sustainable development.

African policymakers see a huge task at hand, and to achieve the 2025 vision of a connected Africa, it is important to have partners with the knowhow and willingness to support the project with sincere commitment.

To understand better the potential of this undertaking, one must appreciate the socioeconomic factors behind it.

Africa has one of the youngest populations (aged 15-24) in the world. As of 2015, the continent had 226 million young people, totaling 19 percent of the global youth population. By 2030, that number is expected to reach 42 per cent.

African youth are tech-savvy and innovative, and they have embraced technology hubs and smart cities.

In July 2016, the number of technology hubs and incubation centers stood at 314. These hubs were in 93 cities in 42 countries in Africa, according to telecoms industry body GSMA's Ecosystem Accelerator, a program that facilitates partnerships between mobile service operators and developers in the continent. Most of these hubs are in the southern parts of Africa such as Nigeria and Morocco.

The growth of these hubs is linked directly to the growing economic power of Africa. Smartphone penetration in East Africa, which is already a global leader in mobile payments, is expected to hit at least the 50 percent mark in 2020, compared with a mere 2 percent in 2010. In sub-Saharan Africa, cellular-enabled machine-to-machine connections are estimated to increase by about 25 percent per year to 30 million by 2020, according to GSMA Intelligence.

Another key element of the smart Africa project is urbanization. The drive to urbanize while embracing smart technologies in cities can be a double-edged sword. It can yield efficiency, rapid growth and better governance for a smooth economic transition to the 21st century industrial revolution. But if policymakers lack a master plan that includes infrastructure improvement, environmental development and equal access to technology, they may end up with smart people instead of smart cities. A technology-based city may not be smart if its citizens don't act smart, but any improvement in living conditions will help promote smart behavior.

To resolve this discrepancy between smart people and smart cities, Africa should turn to committed partners and the first one should be China. The Chinese commitment fits well with the Smart Africa Manifesto. Chinese technology companies have already helped raise Africa's ICT infrastructure from ground zero. Huawei and ZTE both have been active in this regard.

Between private Chinese investment and Chinese government support, Africa can be in a strong position to make the ICT leap needed for its ambitious smart cities plan, reach its employment targets and achieve badly needed regional integration through information technology.

The author is director of Education at the International Bachelor Program at the International School under China Foreign Affairs University.


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