Africa Analysis: Directing technology transfer from China

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Technology transfer is a priority for a new phase in China–Africa cooperation — but it needs the right direction, says Linda Nordling.

Africa can learn a lot from China's booming economy about how science and technology can help to boost development — a fact not lost on either party.

Technology transfer will be a key element of a new phase in the partnership between the two, which was agreed at the fifth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) that took place in Beijing on 19–20 July.

But China's track record in Africa has some lessons for technology transfer that both sides need to consider to ensure their partnership proves equitable and profitable for more Africans.

Not so special zones

China's own economic ascent was fuelled by the establishment of special economic zones governed by laws that were more market-oriented than national laws — lower taxes, for example — in an effort to boost business and attract foreign investors. Such zones were often set up in close proximity to national centres of research excellence to encourage technology transfer.

In 2006, the FOCAC agreed to establish similar zones in Africa. Of the eight that have been approved so far, only one, located in Egypt, is operational. Another, in Zambia, is half-operational, and the others are still under construction or have yet to attract investors.

A policy brief published by the South African Institute of International Affairs before the Beijing forum identifies some of the barriers to the success of the zones. These include not only cultural and language barriers, but also a failure to locate African zones near local industrial and knowledge hubs. [1]

The latter point is also made in a paper published last year by Deborah Brautigam, a China–Africa expert at the American University, Washington DC, and Tang Xiaoyang of the New School for Social Research, New York. [2]

"There is no evidence that any of the host governments have made efforts to develop supplier programmes and other close links between the domestic private sector and the zones. Without this, the zones are likely to remain enclaves and the opportunities for technology and skills transfers will be lost," they write.

Foundations for skills

Other lessons come from successful technology transfer activities outside the flagship economic zones programme.

Chinese telecommunications companies such as Huawei and ZTE are riding on the crest of Africa's mobile telephony wave. ZTE is laying a fibre-optic backbone in Angola, and Huawei is laying a submarine cable for Libya. The companies are also expanding networks in Algeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.

What qualifies this investment as technology-transfer success are the training centres both companies have established in Africa, which produce a local workforce that can operate the technologies and even develop new ones.

In this respect, China's investments in African telecoms differ significantly from other industries such as mining, where Chinese companies are often criticised for limiting the opportunities for technology transfer by excluding local entrepreneurs and labour.

The take-home message for Africa is that skills development goes hand in hand with successful technology transfer — and should be a key component of the China–Africa partnership.

Bamboo hits and misses

But success in technology transfer between China and Africa is not limited to big businesses. There are also lessons from grassroots initiatives.

For example, a Chinese method for making charcoal from bamboo has laid the foundations for a booming cottage industry in Ethiopia, where disastrous deforestation led to a government ban on wood charcoal.

About 2,000 Ethiopian farmers are growing bamboo for energy production, and the number of Ethiopian companies producing bamboo charcoal is growing steadily. China has benefited from sales of the processing machinery and by charging to train technicians and workers in Ethiopia.

But attempts to introduce the technology in Ghana have not been as successful, despite support from the government. The incentives for farmers and small businesses that made the technology a runaway success in Ethiopia are not yet there — Ghana's forests are still plentiful, and while deforestation is a problem, trade in wood charcoal remains legal.

There is no one-size-fits-all technology that will work in all African countries.

Money not the issue

These lessons should be heeded to make the most of technology transfer as China and Africa try to forge their latest partnership over the next three years.

There is certainly enough money changing hands to boost Africa's industrial competitiveness by transferring technology. In 2011, trade between China and Africa was worth a staggering US$166 billion. The Financial Times estimated that in 2009, 800 Chinese corporations were doing business in Africa.

But China has been criticised for doing business with corrupt regimes, not investing in local industrial capacity, and failing to create business opportunities for ordinary Africans.

Improved technology transfer performance would help China's reputation in Africa. It would also show that the 'dragon economy' is serious about wanting to build up African industry by applying lessons from its own rapid development. 

Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.


[1] Alves, A.C. Chinese economic and trade co-operation zones in Africa: Facing the challenges. South African Institute of International Affairs, Policy Briefing 51 (2012)

[2] Brautigam, D., Tang Xiaoyang, African Shenzhen: China’s special economic zones in Africa. Journal of Modern African Studies, 49, 27–54 (2011)