Digital Silk Road: how Zim ICT push can benefit from China

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There is a current hot debate in Zimbabwe about access to quality internet services, whose main premise is the possibility of licensing of an international company that is widely understood to be able to provide widespread coverage across the country with great efficiency.

A number of issues form the points of discussion: first, affordability, cost-effectiveness and price competitiveness; second, efficiency and reach; third, regulatory issues.

Much heat has been around the regulatory issue: can Zimbabwe license a player from a hostile superpower, and what are the security implications? There are indications that in spite – or perhaps because of – a slow official regulatory framework, already some Zimbabweans are using the satelite internet service provided by the international company, using registration credentials from neighbouring countries such as Zambia and Mozambique. This means that a problem is already right on the threshold of authorities; or alternatively, a challenge on how handle the situation in light of fast changing dynamics.

The second issue up for discussion concerns how satelite internet solutions can solve problems of infrastructure, whereby it enables some far flung areas of the country where there is no broadband network coverage to be serviced. These include rural areas that host mining and tourism business. There is a recognition that access to these areas will remain a challenge because of infrastructure gaps, which in the end, would cost the economy dearly when economic activities around mining and tourism remain curtailed. There are also other social and economic activities such as education and health that could benefit from access to internet, that are currently excluded.

Lastly, Zimbabweans have for a long complained about the cost of internet, which is arguably the most expensive in Southern Africa yet its quality is poor, slow and unstable, even in urban settings.

The disadvantages of poor internet service are many, and each passing day that sees the situation not resolved, the greater chance that Zimbabwe’s development is dragged and bogged down. The internet has become the sine qua non of national and global development as the digital economy model gains currency?
What should Zimbabwe do, and what are its options to pursue digital economy and development?

This article proposes that Zimbabwe should explore ways to join the Digital Silk Road for a sustainable push towards digital economy and competitiveness that will benefit the country, especially young people who are relying on the internet for their lifestyle, business, innovation and education, among other functions.

Digital economy and Digital Silk Road: Definitions, Context and Content

According to the Asia Development Bank (ADB) in an article, the digital economy refers to a broad range of economic activities that use digitized information and knowledge as key factors of production. The internet, cloud computing, big data, fintech, and other new digital technologies are used to collect, store, analyze, and share information digitally and transform social interactions. According to ADB, the digitization of the economy creates benefits and efficiencies as digital technologies drive innovation and fuel job opportunities and economic growth.

“The digital economy also permeates all aspects of society, influencing the way people interact and bringing about broad sociological changes,” ADB says.
On the other hand, the Digital Silk Road (DSR) refers to an initiative by China to bring together countries of the world for innovation-driven development, strengthen cooperation in cutting-edge fields such as digital economy, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and quantum computers, and promote big data, cloud computing, and smart cities, according to one authoritative article. The DSR is an adjunct of the Belt & Road Initiative, which focuses on infrastructure of railways, ports and roads and other projects, and was first proposed by President Xi Jingping in 2015.

The outstanding features of DSR include building the physical infrastructure for 5G networks, laying fiber optic cable, and constructing and equipping data centers. As one author explains, by design, DSR also includes promoting China’s standards for telecom, satellite navigation, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and electronic payment systems throughout the countries where DSR projects are underway. Further, DSR projects combine the hard and soft infrastructure that enable the trade efficiencies promised by this next generation of technology and under the so-called “franchise” model, public and private Chinese tech companies leverage state funding, political support, and the China brand to compete effectively for major projects around the world. Accordingly, the growing network of BRI trade hubs will be connected through smart ports and digital free trade zones.

DSR in motion, and why Zim needs China

China’s biggest ICT project in Zimbabwe is the National Mobile Broadband, which is aimed at exapanding and improving the country’s capacity through the building of infrastructure, chiefly operated by state telecomms giant, NetOne.

The project is in its third phase and is being implemented by a technical partner, Huawei with funding from China Eximbank. It began in 2011 with phase one which was completed in 2013 with the installation of 100 3Gbase stations; while the second phase which begun in 2014 saw the construction of 2 231 base stations. The third phase will add 345 new base stations and ensure capacity of NetOne to cover 85 percent of the country.

The total cost of the project runs to over US$200 million.

Another project that has been initiated by China in Zimbabwe is the Centre for High Performance Computing, installed at the University of Zimbabwe at the cost of over US$5 million. The project is often referred to as the supercomputer, as it is capable of processing large amounts of data to find information, run simulations and solve large and complex problems; and is useful in mining exploration, bio-infomatics, genetics research, drug research and other applications in the health sector.

There are a number of areas that China could collaborate with Zimbabwe, building on this promising start.

Zimbabwe has already pivoted on the digital economy. The National Development Strategy 1, the country’s economic blueprint, identifies digital economy as one of the priorities, alongside Economic Growth and Stability; Food Security and Nutrition; Governance; Moving the Economy up the Value Chain & Structural Transformation; Human Capital Development; Environmental Protection; Climate Resilience and Natural Resource Management; Housing Delivery; among others.

Key to this, the Government of Zimbabwe has set out to develop ICT infrastructure that enables the realisation of the digital economy. It states that, “Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), are key enablers of economic development, hence the entrenchment of ICTs across all national development strategies is critical for attainment of universal access by 2030. In order to ensure improved access and usage of ICTs during the NDS1 Period, Government targets to increase internet penetration rate from 59.1 percent in 2020 to 75.4 percent by 2025. Further, the mobile penetration rate is also expected to increase from 94.2 percent to 100 percent by 2025.”

In the past 8 years, Zimbabwe has had two ICT Policy documents, and in the latest one Zimbabwe National Policy for Information and Communication Technology (2021-2025), it explains that the the previous ICT Policy (2016-2020) focused on Growth, Transformation, Inclusiveness, Innovation and partnership and Sustainability while new policy priorities are, Regulatory principles and approaches, Infrastructure and Services, Digital Society, Industry Growth sector (ICT in social sector and economic sectors), Institutional Frameworks, and Capacity, Confidence and Security.

The policy is aligned with the NDS1 in priority area and another policy tool, the Smart Zimbabwe 2030 Master Plan, that underscores the need for a digital economy as a prerequisite for the country to become an upper-middle -income society by the year 2030.

The National ICT Policy envisages support for and oversight of 5G and later generations of networks, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine learning (ML), Big Data and Big Data Analytics (BGA), Block chain technology and Cryptocurrency, Cloud computing, Cyber Security, Optical Fibre Communications (OFC), 3D Printing, Open Data, and Paperless/ contactless technology, etc. It also seeks to butress the development and deployment of the 4IR smart solutions will be encouraged and promoted.

“Digital business creates new value chains and business opportunities,” the policy states. “Disruptive technology introduces double threat in both the upstream accumulated core technical capabilities, and the established business model.”

In a comprehensive fashion, the policy seeks to provide guidelines for responsible and ethical use of AI and other emerging technologies, provide policy and legal framework for AI in e-learning, e-health, e-business and all other e-applications across all sectors – political, social and economic; provide a set of standardized data-protection laws and ways of addressing ethical concerns associated with emerging technologies; establish a strong research environment and industry-academia integration on emerging technologies; among others.

Further, it envisions a multi-sector wide approach where partnerships and collaborations will be promoted across all sectors and to create a conducive environment for investment including through partnerships and collaborations in the ICT sector, and across other sectors. In particular, public private partnerships (PPP) will be encouraged and promoted to support ICT infrastructure development. Connected to this Zimbabwe shall seek collaborations and partnerships with other national, regional and global organisations including development partners and specialised UN agencies.

Bringing full value

There is little doubt that the cooperation recorded so far between the two countries in still nascent. Guided by Zimbabwe’s national ICT Policy, a number of possibilities lie not just between the two nation’s bilateral, State-to-State relations, but also for the private sector in the two countries.

Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE, which are invested in Zimbabwe, have undertaken massive ICT projects elsewhere in Africa and as far afield as Europe. The projects range from assistance-based digital literacy models to commercial enterprise solutions.

On the other hand, the majority of ICT gadgets being used in Zimbabwe and Africa in general such as cellphones and computers are made in China.
There should be encouragement on both sides to allow Chinese companies to do more in the country to build capacity, find solutions, support innovations and upscale and absorb human resources in the ICT sector. The good bilateral relations between the two countries should see more cooperation.

Which, in part, answers the question raised in the debate alluded to at the opening of this article: Zimbabwe needs, and is likely to consider, Chinese players to provide crucial internet services at a time there is high demand for services that local players have woefully failed to provide.

China has already shown that it has the capacity and goodwill to assist African countries, and has supported this through policies and pronouncements at forums such as Focac and the belt and Road Initiative.

Over the years, China has assisted in laying out more than 200,000 km of optical fibre in Africa, giving broadband internet access to millions of households in Africa, while more than half of Africa’s wireless sites and high-speed mobile broadband networks were built by Chinese companies.

Zimbabwe should push a gear up to get more benefits from the Digital Silk Road.

*The writer is a researcher with Ruzivo Media & Resource Centre, a Harare-based media m public affairs think tank.