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The digitalization of Africa


At the China-Africa Internet Development and Cooperation Forum held in Beijing in late August, both sides called for closer cooperation to promote digital innovation and the development of the digital economy. Deeper cooperation with China on digitalization is expected to enhance Africa's capability to deal with the security challenges of surging poverty and the food crisis.

The global spread of the novel coronavirus has exacerbated Africa's poverty and dealt a heavy blow to its traditional industries and to trade across the continent. Amid this unprecedented crisis, however, e-commerce in Africa maintained a dynamic growth rate of more than 5 percent in 2020, showing a strong momentum of being the new driver of the continent's comprehensive economic recovery.

According to the Mobile Economy 2021 Report published by the Global System for Mobile Communications Assembly, as the continent with the youngest population and the fastest growth rate of telecommunications, Africa is expected to enjoy the most evident e-commerce potential in the coming five years, which will help in neutralizing the security challenges triggered by the rebound of poverty there.

China has been attaching great importance to supporting poverty reduction in Africa through the digital economy.

Supported by Chinese enterprises, internet-based new business forms in Africa are helping boost the continent's potential advantages in the digital economy while linking it with the Chinese market and the world market. Taking Alibaba as an example, the leading e-commerce company in China, is supporting Africa launching e-commerce platforms through mechanisms such as Alibaba Global Initiatives, Global Digital Talent and African Young Entrepreneurs Fund.

The introduction of the Alibaba-proposed Electronic World Trade Platform (e-WTP) in Africa promoted the integration of information and communications technology and the real economy of many African countries. In Rwanda, for instance, farmers were able to sell 3,000 bags of coffee beans, which were stacked in warehouses because of the global lockdown following the novel coronavirus outbreak, to Chinese consumers over the online shopping platform Tmall.

Furthermore, by removing middlemen, these new business-to-customer and consumer-to-consumer modes have helped local farmers earn $4 more per kilogram of coffee sold. Alibaba has also helped build a multi-functional digital trade hub (e-Hub) of Africa in Ethiopia, which will open a wider and more efficient gateway for African commodities to enter the global market. In Ghana, the company provided 10 top young winners of the African Netpreneur Prize Initiative from the continent with $1 million to encourage their e-commerce entrepreneurship.

Not only are other African products--such as saffron from Madagascar, vanilla from Comoros, shear butter from Mali, and peanuts from Senegal--enjoying similar dividends thanks to the cooperation between African e-commerce platforms such as Jumia, Takealot, Mall for Africa and Zando with their Chinese counterparts, but countless Africans, especially the youth, are being economically and socially empowered.

The significance of the China-Africa partnership on e-commerce was highly appreciated and strongly recommended by United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, whose statistics predict that the adoption of China-proposed electronics sale platforms by Africa, and cooperation between Africa's existing e-commerce players and China, will help the digital economy create more than 3 million jobs in Africa by 2025, thus becoming a leapfrogging tool to reduce the poverty rate by 2 percent across the continent.

Food security will be among major beneficiaries of China-Africa digitized cooperation. Natural disasters caused by climate change such as droughts and plagues of locusts have dealt a severe blow to agricultural production in Africa since 2020, directly challenging food availability and accessibility to nearly 73 million people across the continent. The Food and Agriculture Organization even called such food insecurity amid the pandemic "a crisis within a crisis".

The vulnerability of food supplies in Africa corresponds to the fragile value chain structure of its agricultural production, which is largely made up of small household farms. Digitalization of agriculture could help build a more resilient food system in Africa by ending the information and technology scarcity in its traditional agriculture mode. Digitalization is making information an agricultural production factor and using information and communications technology to visually express, intelligently design and scientifically manage the whole production process, which will efficiently improve agriculture's adaptability to environment and the market.

China has been actively promoting the development of digital agriculture in Africa. Hema village in Gashora, Rwanda, an agricultural digital base launched by Alibaba, is a typical example of China's engagement and contribution, to ensure a supply, through online orders, of high quality chili through refinement, standardization and digital transformation of local farmers' agricultural produce. Despite the pandemic, the village can still maintain a stable supply of chili in the market.

This mode can be replicated elsewhere in Africa, helping local farmers avoid risks brought by changes in market supply and demand as well as price fluctuations. Besides, apart from providing a comprehensive agritech solution for irrigation, pest control, applying fertilizer and harvest to agricultural production, big data technology can systematically reconstruct the supply chain network of agricultural products by connecting processes of production, acquisition, containerization, storage, distribution and sales.

As China's concrete step to support "digital Africa", the success of Hema village has an important enlightenment for Africa to achieve a sustainable food security by strengthening partnership with China on digital agriculture.

The author is deputy director of the Security Studies Division at the China-Africa Institute.