In this special report, independent writer Stephen Haggard stimulates debate by taking a critical look at China’s actions in African schools and mobile telecoms. Haggard argues that, up to now, China’s presence in Africa has had disappointing impacts on learning. However, there are signs that China’s government and companies are planning to branch out from the “hard” technology of infrastructure to “soft” businesses such as education and training. This, Haggard argues, could have huge implications for education in Africa.
The views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of eLearning Africa or its associated organisations. Join the debate and share your views!
China’s adventure in Africa is conspicuous. In cash terms, China-Africa bilateral trade hit $114 billion in 2010, and if that year’s 40% annual growth keeps up, the current year’s deals will be worth over $200 billion. China’s activities in Africa eclipse those of America and the World Bank. In extent, they span mining, agriculture, transport, infrastructure, IT, education and more. Cheap Chinese consumer goods and clothes have flooded Africa’s markets – to a mixed reception. Films are made. When China met Africa is a touching portrait of the hardships, winners and losers in this high-energy relationship. The sheer volume of Chinese activity and money possibly distorts perceptions, according to Ndubuisi Ekekwe, a founder of the African Institution of Technology, who observes that “because the Chinese are in town with cash, the world sees an illusion of more progress than there really is”. But the fact remains that the cash behind the transformation of African social and physical infrastructure is now predominantly China’s.
The manner matters as much as the scale. China takes paths that set it apart, such as its speed in entering post-conflict nations or dealing with regimes others find unsavoury. China’s pragmatic approach is defined by the widely-quoted mantra “no political strings attached”. This in practice means: China will deal with any regime they wish, and that regime’s leaders will do what they want with the cash. According to Eric Olander, Editor of The China-Africa Project website and podcast, China explicitly rejects the Western model for supporting development, branding the aid industry a waste of money which merely creates dependency and favours home interests. Instead, China offers business. It is structured through bilateral contracts (usually for oil or ores) negotiated behind closed doors, featuring “tied” financing which has to be paid over to Chinese contractors who build infrastructure. The contracts themselves are controversial, many being criticised for low quality and poor employment practices. At best, these developments have offered a quick way of laying roads and pipes. At worst, they have mortgaged the long term future of the continent. Most are too opaque to judge. However, Africa’s elites love the Chinese way of doing business – Malawi’s politicians even got a whole new Government complex built for them – and the red carpet is rolled out.
Ordinary Africans can and do derive hope from China’s development story – an economic model based on breakneck infrastructure growth and foreign investment that’s lifted 500 million Chinese out of poverty in three decades. Afrobarometer has started tracking public opinion about Chinese investment in 20 African countries, and these surveys find that on balance there is street-level support for the Chinese presence in most nations. However, anger and grumbling, particularly about wages and business practices, is also loud. Notable centres for negative voices are Southern Sudan which bitterly resents China’s arming of the North, Tanzania where the President has specifically excluded Chinese bids for some contracts, and Zambia, where the conduct of Chinese companies has become a politicised issue.
Welcomed or not, China’s involvement spells big and sharp change around infrastructure. But what changes will it bring for learning and technology, the remit of eLearning Africa?
A recent study of Chinese trade deals in Africa concluded that China views Africa as “a welcome offloading ground for its products in exchange for oil” . However, if this is true, then China is not the only offender; after all, the Colonial powers set the precedent long ago – but the observation helps to underline that education in Africa is not one of China’s goals. Any educational gains depend on African Governments having the vision and systems to turn China’s industrial capital into social and intellectual capital. The educational upturn could be a long time coming if your country has a corrupt leadership or, worse, like Burkina Faso, your country recognises Taiwan. Director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, He Wenping, neatly catches the good and bad of this, with her account ofschool funding by China. “Normally oura ssistance to Africa is demand-driven. So we are not going and saying we are going to put a school here — they put in their request first, and then we dispatch our team to do the feasibility study.” No request, no school.
So let’s start with China’s building or equipping of African schools. This has been a regular element in the announcement of a typical Chinese deal. Impacts are potentially big. Kenya is slated to secure Chinese IT suites with 25 PCs and Internet access for every one of its 6,000 secondary schools in a KES 9 billion deal currently pending signature. However, the value to Kenyan students will only be determined after the boxes are unpacked and the engineers have gone. Like all eLearning initiatives, the African eLearning community needs to monitor this initiative closely and measure utilisation, benefits, maintenance and sustainability; all the usual niggles. Similar initiatives funded by Europe and USAID in Uganda never moved beyond the pilots, and observers report a total absence of information about whether objectives were achieved.
Surveying China’s educational contributions over the years, a fair proportion of what’s been achieved in such deals looks petty and self-serving. Take Sierra Leone. In their book “Why Nations Fail” authors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson ask why the village of Yoni, in Bombali district, has received a brand new Chinese-funded school. They ask the question – not unreasonably in my view – whether this might be linked to the fact that Yoni is the home village of the President. Whatever other schools China has built in Sierra Leone, I can’t find any trace of them. No less a figure than Paul Kagame worries that China’s cash may be threatening good governance in Africa. The Rwandan President, arguing that African leaders have a duty to “take good governance seriously”, warns that “the presence of Chinese investment in Africa does not discharge governments of their responsibilities”in this regard.
Such school investment by China as there is often comes close to the status of Potemkin Villages, the painted facades constructed to impress the entourage of Catherine the Great on her travels. In the context of the Chinese funding of the Sierra Leone Presidency, Military and Parliament buildings, the construction of a school building or two is mere peanuts. Many other aid donors and foreign governments also build schools, and do more besides. Western donors’ budget support, which allowed Sierra Leone to abolish school fees, supply text books, and increase school enrolments, was a more significant contributor to the country’s education progress. China does not do budget support. China has no impact on what happens in classrooms.
But might China’s engagement in the African education space be starting to evolve? Consider the following three exhibits.
Exhibit 1: Members of this year’s eLearning Africa conference will include, for the first time ever, a full delegation from China. The visitors are from the International Research and Training Centre for Rural Education, a research centre linked to Beijing Normal University’s Center for Knowledge Engineering. They will be presenting a session about the Chinese experience of eLearning in rural development. Delegation member Zeng Haijun, who is a veteran of ICT-based rural education projects in China says, “there have been a number of successful eLearning projects in rural China, and we hope these experiences will be useful for African countries”.
Exhibit 2: A collaboration between Nairobi’s Kenyatta University and the UK’s Middlesex University has been observing the development of technical training in East Africa. Wyn Griffiths, project leader, interviewed for this article, told me that “up until recently, it was in background technologies such as solar power and buildings where we saw Chinese activity in the schools and colleges. Now I’m seeing it in the educational equipment (CAD, computer systems, engineering machinery, etc.). My early experiences of this provision were all based around US foundations/industry or UK aid, but there has been a surge of large-scale Chinese equipment provision over the last year or two.”
For context, Griffiths observes that African-Chinese educational sharing in his sector does take place at the higher education level. He reports that many of his engineering and design students from the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University have undertaken postgraduate study in China, with Chinese Government support. A few formal collaborations at tertiary level are already in place (one Chinese MBA school has already opened its Africa campus), and China has the infrastructure to deliver such arrangements through its Confucius Institutes (Beijing’s answer to the Alliance Française and the Goethe-Institut). In the primary and secondary sectors, however, China lacks the frameworks needed for working internationally.
Exhibit 3: China has just signed, in March 2012, its funding for a US$8 million African teacher training initiative led by UNESCO. The “Funds in Trust” deal, the first of this kind, sets a new direction for China’s African policy which, up to now, has been restricted to specific so-called “concrete” projects, and has shunned the multinational donor community. It is budget support which is new. It affects what happens in classrooms. This is also new. Both are firsts for China.
Examples such as these don’t amount to a new direction, but they do hint at the possibility. The account of China’s African activities may need to extend beyond today’s diagnosis of an imperialist agenda where access to resources and contracts is China’s top concern, and education is relevant only insofar as it serves this agenda. Certainly, Chinese opinion is starting to talk openly about its need for “soft power in Africa”. The Director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences,He Wenping, announced the shift in China Daily in February 2012, writing that “it is not mission impossible for China to increase its influence in Africa on the ideological front, and there exist plenty of opportunities for China to achieve this”. Learning to win friends among the people, as well as in leadership circles, is part of China’s general maturing as a global power. Beijing paid heavily for the failure of Chinese companies in Burma to soften the unpalatable side of their activities. The brutal tactics of Chinese pipeline contractors were one of the main reasons the Generals in Yangon turned to the West for aid,.
Ghana is one of the places we might look to see signs on the ground of a more sophisticated engagement with education. China’s 2006 trade deal gave Ghana three model schools and everyone applauded. The latest deal is a $3bn loan from China for oil and transport investment negotiated in August 2011. Few have applauded. Indeed, it has attracted criticism from independent observers as well as Ghana’s commentariat, and the opposition parties took to the BBC airwaves demanding publication of the loan terms, and value for money. This scrutiny in itself increases the chance that education and other social causes may fight for their share of the Government’s sudden bonanza. So far, the deal’s implications for education are unknown.
But China’s funding for the UNESCO teacher training programme – although not targeted specifically at Ghana – is evidence that her contribution can go beyond the construction of token buildings that oil secret deals, and can support necessary structural educational changes. Ghana, whose primary school participation typifies the record of many sub-Saharan nations, has a deficit of 20,000 trained teachers, says Kofi Asare of the Ghanaian NGO Action for Rural Education. Asare believes that Ghana’s biggest problem in basic education is that 38% of the primary school workforce is untrained. Let’s watch that space: Any sign that some of the $3bn from China is being earmarked for teacher training in Ghana would be important news.
What kind of educational inputs from China might we see if this new direction does gather momentum?
Views about what education involves are also changing rapidly inside China itself, and we may expect to see the impacts of this in Africa. Beijing’s 2010 to 2020 education vision for China shifts the emphasis to system reform and teacher training. Long-term funding, management control over the entire system, educational technology, and experimental pilots are the new watchwords in China’s Education Ministry. China has several times committed to assigning 4% of its GDP to education. It’s not achieved this yet, but that’s the goal, restated in the Government’s 2010-2020 education paper, and its intended transition to a knowledge-based economy will make education ever more important. Ironically, in input terms, many African countries are actually ahead of China: Ghana spends 10% of GDP and 31% of the state budget on education.
China does have useful experience in extending education to underserved communities. The children of China’s 300 million migrant workers, notoriously “absent” from official registers, did not participate in state funded education until the last round of educational reform set their inclusion as a goal of policy. The solution, as ever in China, is an emergent and pragmatic one. The existing commercial providers of schooling, often working to low standards, are taken over (or razed). The premises are smartened up, the supply of qualified teachers is assured and the state curriculum is imposed. Problem solved – Chinese style. Solutions like this, forged in the heat of breakneck development, have yet to be transferred to Africa, but there is every reason to expect such innovative contributions if relationships deepen. Food security, a key driver for China’s strategic interest in Africa, was identified at the recent Stellenbosch University conference on China-Africa relations as an area where China had an immediate need to deliver learning content. Training in agricultural techniques from Chinese contractors for African farmers is already on the cards.
Specifically, China has a potentially valuable legacy of eLearning experience, which is relatively unknown outside its own borders. A snapshot in 2006 recorded distance learning and eLearning pilots in 68 Chinese Universities, 44 TV Universities operating in the Provinces, and 1.2 million students enrolled in 19,000 distance or eLearning courses. These are impressive numbers, and a serious project is now underway to translate and make some of the materials available in English, so that the pedagogy and quality of the materials can also be assessed. I am grateful to Prof Huang Ronghuai and Dr Zeng Haijin at Beijing University’s Research Centre for Knowledge Engineering for sharing this information. Zeng believes that China’s experience has direct relevance to Africa in several ways. Similarities include the problems of access and also the great diversity of learning conditions. One simple and radical Chinese initiative cited by Zeng is the “One Village One College Student” model. This system does what it says on the tin: one graduate student is placed in a rural community, and charged with disseminating vocational training materials produced in centres of expertise. One Village One College Student has now seen 93,000 graduates deliver eLearning content created in 582 teaching centres. Could this work in Africa? And if so, might China perhaps be the best partner to deliver it?
China moves fast when it gets going, but it will probably be a few years yet before we see any kind of significant uptick in learning outputs attributable to China’s presence in Africa. Arguably, the way China may contribute sooner to education in Africa has nothing to do with schools and what happens in them. The recent Informa forecast of 87% mobile phone penetration in Africa by 2016 (albeit SIM subscriptions not handsets) means mobile access will soon be more prevalent across Africa than basic primary education. This statistical coincidence raises the intriguing possibility that Africa may be the laboratory for a new kind of culture of learning, in which digital literacy runs ahead of alphabetic literacy. The phone has certainly outpaced schooling, in terms of growth of access and fundability, and is beginning to shape learning outcomes. Nokia’s MoMath project in South Africa, offering free maths support by mobile, claims to have an 82% uptake and to have delivered 14% improvements in learning scores to those who use it. According to Lisham Adam, author of the December 2011 e-transform Africa study of ICT and learning for the African Union, mobile is a winner in the short term. “The fact that users already have access to mobile phones offers opportunities in terms of sustainability and scalability. We are seeing some countries use mobile phones for access in learning on an increasingly large scale”, says Adam.
If the mobile’s boom is this significant, perhaps those interested in what China’s African presence has to offer education should concentrate on what China is doing in the mobile ownership space. It’s dirty. In Ethiopia, corruption allegations over licences are hurled back and forth, and Chinese operators have created entrenched monopolies and reinforced government control. There are charges that Chinese-owned networks have censored content by blocking certain sites. African states might take a pause for thought given China’s growing reputation for cyber-attacks as a means of pursuing diplomacy. But the speed of China’s telecoms play leaves no time to even draw breath. For three years in a row, over $10 billion of Chinese cash per year has been pumped into the African mobile phone sector.
eLearning Africa last reported on the China telecoms story in February 2011, highlighting the scale of Chinese-backed telecoms infrastructure going down in Ethiopia and elsewhere. A year on and the scale is ever greater. Huawei just signed a five-year $30 billion credit from China Development Bank to finance African telecom equipment orders. Rival ZTE has put similar deals in place. But now, in addition to sheer masses of money, we are starting to see that the tactics of China’s communication giants might also impact on education.
Ethiopia is a good place to observe it. This is a curious location for educational technology, where distance learning was officially banned in 2010, although every Secondary school classroom has a plasma TV (with reports of mixed results). USAID funds a $100 million 5-year schools expansion programme, with an emphasis on achieving full literacy and closing the literacy gender gap. In Ethiopia, Huawei has also flashed $100 million at schools, making a single massive donation of office equipment to Ethiopia’s Education Ministry in August 2011, to be installed in “the best performing” schools (Xinhua, August 10th, 2011). The contrast of American and Chinese tactics on education is instructive. Both nations’ education investments may create significant impacts, and as development strategies, both approaches are valid. But arguably the significance of mobile giants may in the end prove greater, because of the multiplier effect of technology. Where Hauwei equipment sits in schools, expect content services on broadband to follow shortly.
But mobile penetration itself will be the most powerful multiplier for content services in Ethiopia and elsewhere. Rival ZTE has looked for Ethiopian mobile domination by getting its technology behind the first phone to provide Amharic language content. The $20 phone, which includes a torch and radio, was launched at the end of 2011 and is assembled in Ethiopia by a company run by ex-Silicon Valley engineers. Ethiopia’s Communications Minister in February 2011 announced that Huawei was developing a broadband service for mobile users. The company didn’t confirm or deny, but we know its $100 IDEOS developing world smartphone is key to its business strategy. Smartphone handset ownership in the African mobile user base, currently around 10% of the market and forecast to hit 20% by 2014 , brings rich content into millions of African hands.
These developments, spurred on by aggressive competition between Chinese companies, signal a huge shift in the African mobile scene. From a story of device ownership and access pricing, the mobile will inevitably become one of content and services. The proven genius of African entrepreneurs for innovating in mobile services (m-Pesa, moBiashara, Mocality to name but a few) and the strong African demand for education, means we are inevitably going to get learning services flowing down these pipes.
What might these mobile-based learning services look like? Tanzania’s next generation of mobile apps is now in the pipeline. It’s driven by entrepreneurial speculation and international venture capital. In February 2012, m:lab Nairobi organised a mobile apps workshop for Tanzanian ICT entrepreneurs in preparation for a pitching session to venture capitalists in June 2012. The session was a taster of things to come. The organisers set out categories for funding: finance, entertainment etc. Education wasn’t mentioned. But the entrepreneurs had different ideas: education had a big role in the mobile app concepts they brainstormed. Ideas ranged from teaching aids to mentorship apps, from college timetables to farming skills tips, and from CV-sender to school course-work sender. Not all of these ideas will make it to market, and not all will prosper. But some will. And learning apps will be embedded in Tanzania’s phone content market.
What role might China play in this emerging future of apps and content? So far, China’s not participating. The deals that put content on to phones are not Chinese deals. Safaricom’s hook-up with Facebook, for example, puts the Vodafone 555 Blue, a Facebook-orientated phone selling at below $100, into Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, with more territories to follow. This creates a robust channel for the content and media industry, as well as a workable platform for learning. China merely built the pipes. But could China be seeking to change its game here too? John Keiti, who organises m:lab Nairobi’s app development start-up funding round, has just reported that one of the Chinese mobile phone giants will shortly join m:lab as a sponsor. This will be the first time a Chinese company has engaged constructively with any process around mobile content. It’s one to watch, and it heralds the possibility that, over and above their domination of handsets and transmitters, Chinese companies may seek to get a competitive advantage by setting technical standards for content and influencing software choices in the emerging African smartphone market.
China’s huge weakness, however, centres on content. Whether it’s entertainment or information, China lacks the skills, mindset and processes to put out popular and respected material. For the most part, Eric Olander of The China-Africa Project is enthusiastic and optimistic about the China-Africa relationship, on which he frequently blogs and reports. But after observing China’s forays in content, he told eLearning Africa: “The problem when the Chinese venture into content is that it’s terrible. They just have no idea how to do it, and they are very reticent to enter partnerships that would help them do it better, because they’d lose control. The BBC has spent 100 years learning how to make stuff that people want to watch, and China can’t get there overnight. After five years, Al Jazeera is still struggling in Africa. China is using its control over the pipes to force the usage of Chinese content like CCTV in Nairobi, but the programming sucks. They’ll figure it out in the end, they always do, but I’m not convinced they can do this quickly”. However, Olander warns that he has a long history of underestimating the speed with which China meets new challenges.
I believe the question for 2012 and beyond is how long the physical world of roads pipes, resources and equipment will remain the limit of China’s African ambitions. We are going to see
Chinese organisations trying to enter the added-value sector of content. In the following phase of economic development – services, media and a knowledge economy – we have yet to discover how far China has the wish, the approach, or the ability to make any headway in Africa.
The Francis brothers’ documentary When China met Africa foreshadows the dilemma. Two contrasting tales of Chinese investment in Zambia unfold in human stories. Mr Li, project manager for Hunan International Corporation, toils diligently to complete a road building project for his company. But the funding allocated for the project has run into the sand somewhere between the official deal and the Zambian Government’s delivery of money to the road contractors. The road is abandoned – only part built – and the project packs up. Farmer Liu Chiangming, on the other hand, a private investor, is expanding his chicken-rearing and horticulture business very rapidly. Murk and muck are balanced with charm and hope in both stories, but a sharp contrast emerges about which kind of Chinese investment will have the greater legacy. [callout title=Stephen Haggard]Stephen Haggard is CEO of the eLearning company eDysgu. He has been Executive Producer in the BBC-Open University eLearning partnership, and numerous eLearning projects for governments, schools, universities and corporations. He is also co-founder of the online project African Digital Diaries, which collects testimony at the frontiers of eLearning in Africa.[/callout]The filmmakers seem to suggest that when China meets Africa, an individual determined to get ahead has as much impact as a multimillion dollar Government-brokered infrastructure deal.
China watcher Eric Olander believes the most powerful motor for deepening China’s engagement with Africa in the long term is the personal experience of Chinese project managers now in their late twenties. “Tens of thousands of educated Chinese top graduates are out in Africa running massive deals. They end up doing 5-year stints, learning local languages, and getting the hang of global business in Africa. These guys are going home to their companies with broader experience and better ideas than their peers, and they are also taking home a chunk of Africa in their hearts and minds and address books. In another decade, they’ll be near the top of their companies. Now that’s really going to change things.”
 Preference over outcomes: Explaining US-Sino oil diplomacy in Sub-Saharan Africa
Fanie Herman* and Tsai Ming-Yen African Journal of Political Science and International Relations Vol. 5(8), pp. 396-408, August 2011 Available online at http://www.academicjournals.org/AJPSIR
 eTransform Africa, report for ADB, World Bank and African Union by ICT Development Associates, December 2011, p 120 see http://www.etransformafrica.org/sites/default/files/Country-Case-Studies-Education.pdf
 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, Policy Paper 02 November 2011
 Reuters, Insight: As Myanmar opens, China alliance starts to fray http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/14/us-myanmar-china-idUSTRE81D03R20120214
 International Conference: China-Africa Relations and Public Diplomacy. 15-16 August 2011. Stellenbosch Institute for International Studies (STIAS), Wallenburg Research Centre, Stellenbosch University. Proceedings summary p. 7 available at http://www.ccs.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Conference-Report_CCS_15-16082011.pdf
 China’s Huawei launches Mobile Broadband Road Show in Ethiopia 29 Feb 2012, on Gov.cn see http://english.gov.cn/2012-02/29/content_2079344.htm
 The Africa Report, Telcoms: Smart Money is on Smart Phones, January 2012, http://www.theafricareport.com/index.php/news-analysis/telecoms-smart-money-is-on-smart-phones-50178508.html