How Chinese innovation can spur economic growth in Africa

Articles 11 September 2017

By Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais, Founder and CEO Quantum Global Group, Founder of the Africa Innovation Foundation and an International Council member at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

China’s economic success has been the envy of the world in recent decades. Its GDP grew by an average of 9.71 per cent between 1989 and 2017. The country’s story has evolved in tandem with three key factors: steady deregulation, major investment in infrastructure and a surge in innovative technologies. These three factors have proven throughout history to be reliable liberators of economic growth – but can the same be applied thousands of miles away in one of the world’s most complex regions, sub-Saharan Africa?

Africa – a region of 54 countries – is separated by thousands of miles of terrain, complicated political histories and anywhere between 1,000 and 3,000 languages. It also has significant socioeconomic challenges such as access to education, infrastructure, poverty and life expectancy. Yet Africa and China have much in common.

China and Africa both have huge populations, which in the pursuit of industrialisation and economic growth is hugely important. Between them, over a third of the planet’s people live in either Africa and China – 2.6 billion. Of these, 1.2 billion live in Africa. Unlike China however, Africa has an extremely young population – and it is the fastest growing in the world. This provides the African continent with the richest source of human capital in the world – but it must be nurtured.

China’s story illustrates how important it is for human capital to be nurtured. At a 2016 event combining the national conference on science and technology, the biennial conference of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, President Xi Jinping said that, “China should establish itself as one of the most innovative countries by 2020 and a leading innovator by 2030”. He went on to say that, “Great scientific and technological capacity is a must for China to be strong and for people’s lives to improve.”

This is as true for Africa as it is for China. The emphasis in both countries must be to push enterprise from the grass roots. Government zeal is key and, in Africa, there is a rapidly growing understanding among policymakers that innovation – and the support of innovation – is critical. Therefore, investment in innovation ecosystems and infrastructure in Africa must be a key priority.

According to a recent study by Boston Consulting Group, China’s later-stage R&D spending has already surpassed that of the US and this is crucial if innovations are to realise commercial success. China has benefited from state financial support and public- and private-sector investment in start-ups, SMEs and innovators – and this has seen China’s technology sector boom.

Two of the world’s biggest companies by stock market capitalisation are Chinese technology firms. Tencent has seen its shares rocket by 43.6 per cent in 2017 so far, outperforming Facebook. It is one of the world’s largest internet companies and the biggest gaming company in the world. It provides a social network, web portals, e-commerce, mobile games and smartphones. These services meet the unique cultural needs of the Chinese population and they are extremely popular. China’s Weibo has eclipsed Twitter, with over 340 million monthly users compared to its American rivals 328 million in the first quarter of the year.

China’s prowess in technology and innovation can be replicated in Africa – the world’s fastest-growing and youngest population, if African countries commit to investing heavily in SMEs and providing platforms for innovators to succeed. That investment cannot, however, come solely from the government. In the diverse African continent, private sector and not-for-profit organisations are pushing for the kind of grass-roots innovation that has helped China succeed.

Source: South China Morning Post