Chinese-aided satellite TV project helps connect African villages to the world
New vision
Published: Oct 18, 2021 08:34 PM
Children watch TV in a village in Cote d'Ivoire. The Wan Cun Tong project cooperates with some 500 villages in Cote d'Ivoire. (Photo: Courtesy of StarTimes)

Children watch TV in a village in Cote d'Ivoire. The Wan Cun Tong project cooperates with some 500 villages in Cote d'Ivoire. (Photo: Courtesy of StarTimes)

Hehrt curiously watches workers install a satellite TV at the hospital in which he works. He rushes to the TV and changes channels after it's been installed, and becomes very excited when there is a kung fu movie. "And it's in English!" he says. "I used to watch Jackie Chan's and Jet Li's kung fu movies."

It was in June 2019 when China's technical team came to doctor Hehrt's hospital in Olasiti, a small village in Kenya, to help set up a satellite TV signal. Prior to that, the hospital had neither a signal nor a television, and sometimes patients would get bored and impatient after waiting to see a doctor for hours while doing nothing, Hehrt recalled.

Now it's great that patients can watch TV when they are waiting, Hehrt said. "And I can watch my favorite football games after work," he added.

Including Olasiti, China has planned to provide more than 10,000 African villages with digital satellite TV services, helping many in Africa, especially those in rural areas, to broaden their horizons and narrow the digital divide. 

Named "Access to Satellite TV for 10,000 African Villages (or "Wan Cun Tong" in Chinese)", the project has been successfully completed in 20 recipient countries in Africa as of August 2021, benefiting more than 6.5 million people in 8,612 villages, StarTimes, a Chinese subscription television service provider that was contracted to implement the project across Africa, told the Global Times.

Similar to China's many other aid projects in Africa, Wan Cun Tong helps promote the development of Africa's lesser-developed regions and the connection of local people to the world, observers said.

Instead of a "content output" or an "information invasion" as some conspiracy theorists in the West may have claimed, the project is a beneficial, win-win cooperation between China and African countries, said Liu Haifang, director of the Center for African Studies at Peking University. "The West should stop applying their own logic of expansionism or colonialism to China," Liu told the Global Times.

"Wan Cun Tong" in Uganda

The project Wan Cun Tong, one of the resolutions reached at the Johannesburg Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2015, aims to provide digital TV access to 10,112 villages across 23 Sub-Saharan countries.

Under the project, each selected village will receive two sets of solar-powered projector TV systems, and one solar digital TV integrated terminal system in a public area free of charge, according to StarTimes. The company will also install satellite dishes and decoders for 20 recipient families in each village for free.

Wang Fan, the CEO of StarTimes branch in Uganda, a primary recipient country in the project, told the Global Times that the program, initiated in July 2018, aims to install 20 satellite TV set-top boxes and projection TV systems in three public areas free of charge for 20 households in each of the 900 villages, totaling 18,000 households and 2,700 public areas including schools, hospitals, and churches. The total number of beneficiaries is estimated to be about 670,000.

The second phase of the project has completed preliminary basic training and research work, and is now in the process of installing user satellite pots donated to certain villages, which is expected to be completed by mid-December.

The Chinese technical team has also trained at least 2,000 local personnel for the installation and maintenance of  satellite TVs in Uganda, partly contributing to local employment. 

Wang Fan explained that local and Chinese representatives discuss and agree upon the list of villages to accept the equipment in the initial stages, allowing for the Chinese researchers to conducted field visits to conduct screenings to discover those unable to meet the basic requirements. Technical personnel next go into villages to design specific plans and bring along with them the relevant equipment and technology for personnel training. A long-term after-sales service tracking is required after the completion of an installation. 

Priority will be given to villages with large areas covered by public spaces and villages with convenient transportation close to cities.

"The overall Wan Cun Tong program has been very well received, appreciated, and supported by the local governments and people," Wang Fan told the Global Times. "But COVID-19 still poses a major challenge to progress. Uganda's shortage of vaccines amid the recent second-wave pandemic resurgence put us at risk indeed. But local health authorities gave priority to providing medical support resources to our team and coordinated using protective measures to ensure zero infection for all participants, which is much appreciated." 

A window to the world

The China-aided Wan Cun Tong project has provided satellite TV services to millions of residents in rural Africa in the past few years. It has brought conveniences and changes to peoples' lifestyles, particularly among the youth.

At the Milimani Primary School in Naivasha town in Kenya, one of the largest local public schools in the area, pupils began enjoying modern digital learning since the project installed a solar projection system there. With projection equipment, children at the school have greater access to information and culture from around the world, and even choreograph dance routines while following available videos online, the school headmaster Martin told StarTimes.

"I was so excited when I saw the TV pictures for the first time," said a student of the school nicknamed Kipkirui. "We learned math with the projector. Before that, I really hated math class. I couldn't understand what the teacher was talking about. But when the projector shows mathematical graphics in front of me, it's easy for me to understand.

"I used to get only 50 points in math, now I can get 80," Kipkirui added.

"Uganda is one of the least developed countries in the world, with a national GDP per capita of less than $800. A television set is a luxury for many local rural families," Wang Fan explained. "More, electricity in some villages is not stable, making running  TV even harder. The Chinese-aided project not only provides the equipment, but also the solar-powered electric system which greatly alleviates the electricity challenge. Equipment in the common area also includes 20 free programs."

The project has also trained more than 2,000 skilled local technicians in the installation and maintenance of digital television equipment, enabling them to improve their living standards and strengthen their financial stability with decent wages, Wang Fan suggested.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has raged on since the tail end of 2019, Uganda has also been in a state of partial lockdown, with schools closed and the government encouraging students to learn online. Residents in equipment-assisted villages can participate in online learning via satellite and by watching education channels, he noted. 

Wang Yuanbo, a StarTimes staffer who was once in charge of project implementation in Uganda, recalled a school headmaster in a village in western Uganda, who excitedly held Wang's hands after equipment installation. The headmaster thanked Wang and his coworkers for "opening a window for the children to the world."

"Uganda and China, we are good friends forever," the headmaster said to Wang Yuanbo, giving him and his colleagues a basket of oranges before they left.

The Wan Cun Tong project in a Zambian village. (Photo: Courtesy of StarTimes)

The Wan Cun Tong project in a Zambian village. (Photo: Courtesy of StarTimes)

A choice on both sides

As a trademark measure of the China-Africa cooperation and a practice of building a China-Africa community with a shared future, the Wan Cun Tong project offers people in Africa a portal through which to learn not only about the world as a whole, but also more about their good partner and friend, China, Liu told the Global Times.

In Kenya, 67-year-old Rebecca in Kajiado town said she watches international news on CNC (China Xinhua News Network Corporation) every day after her home was connected to a satellite signal under the project. Through watching TV, this retired teacher said she has seen rapid changes in China over the years.

"China was similar to us 20 years ago; now we see on TV that China is developing very fast, it has great engineers, and made-in-China [products] is full in our lives," said Rebecca, adding that she hoped her granddaughter might be able to go to China for further studies in the near future.

Nonetheless, with the rolling out of Wan Cun Tong in Africa, some in the US started to attack the project with lies and smear campaigns, observers have found. In a CNN article in July 2019, the author described the project as a method for China to "slowly expand its power in Africa," claiming that it gives Beijing "a tighter grip on the continent's communications infrastructure and control over how it is portrayed there in the media."

Wang Fan refutes such claims, clarifying that users are fairly free to choose any international channel, and that the StarTimes device does not block any channels.

The device provides 20 free channels in public areas, mainly popular local Ugandan channels covering education, news, sports, religion, film, and more. The device provided by the company offers more than 400 channels in total, including in Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, and various African vernacular channels, with more to come in the future, Wang Fan said.

Much like the CNN article, accusations against Wan Cun Tong and other China-funded aid projects to Africa are no more than common tricks by some Westerners, who constantly attempt to defame China and sever China-Africa ties with worn cliches such as "neocolonialism" or the "China threat theory," Liu pointed out.

"In the eyes of these former invaders and colonists, every Chinese national in Africa is sent by the Chinese government to carry out China's 'colonial plan,' and every Confucius Institute is a spy agency," Liu told the Global Times. "They judge others through the lens of past atrocities committed by them, passing off what their European predecessors did centuries ago on China."

The development of African countries, and the strengthening of mutual trust and mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Africa, is a conscious choice on both sides, and won't be hampered by the big "green-eyed Western monster" some, experts and observers noted.

There is no need to overly worry about the slanders, Wu Peng, director of the Department of African Affairs in Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at the 2021 World Internet Conference (WIC) in September. He mentioned that amid the COVID-19, China's donations of medical supplies have covered all African countries. 

"What China is doing in Africa is something tangible," Wu said.