China tech in Africa is nothing new. Telecommunications giant Huawei has built around 70% of the continent’s 4G networks. Smartphone manufacturer Transsion commands 40% of Africa’s smartphone market. 

Much of the activity by tech firms has focused on telecommunications infrastructure and the handset market. But as the infrastructure becomes more developed, Chinese companies are increasingly offering a new slate of digital services and backing novel African startups, with a focus on inclusive financial services.

Expanding Empires

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Over the past few months, TechNode has been mapping Chinese tech giants overseas empires. Initially focused on the US, Chinese companies have since 2018 slowed down investing in the country, as tensions between the two superpowers rise. As we’ve written previously, companies including Alibaba and Tencent have instead sharpened their focus on the developing markets of India and Southeast Asia. 

Africa is no different. Lifestyle services giant Meituan-Dianping, gaming behemoths Tencent and Netease, as well as Transsion have made big bets on African companies. Alibaba has taken a different approach by launching training programs for aspiring African entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, big-ticket Chinese venture capital firms including IDG Capital, Sequoia China, and Gaorong Capital have sharpened their focus on Africa. Investors expect to see a boom in financial services on the continent as connectivity improves and under-served populations come online. 

Africa is a huge market with massive potential. The continent boasts six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies. With a diverse mix of 1.3 billion people, its population is expected to surpass China’s by 2025. 

To be sure, China tech’s footprint remains modest in Africa, but the trends point to a major shift. Chinese tech titans see opportunities and conditions similar to those that lifted themselves in China before the internet boom. 

Humble beginnings

Like China in the early 2000s, Africa supports a massive population, an under-served market, and a growing pool of tech talent. As the demand for digital services has increased, dynamic tech hubs have sprung up in Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa. 

In the past decade, some Chinese companies have seen massive success in Africa. While the US has pushed countries around the world to exclude Huawei from their telecommunications networks, African countries have welcomed the firm as they push to improve connectivity. 

Huawei was instrumental in rolling out 4G rollout across Africa and is set to drive 5G adoption on the continent. Alongside Chinese rival ZTE, Huawei received preferential loans from the Chinese government to establish telecom infrastructure throughout Africa, found Iginio Gagliardone, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand who has written extensively about the influence of China in Africa. The government loans enabled the two companies to expand their influence across the continent with little risk.

A few other firms bet the farm on Africa, like Transsion. Founded in Shenzhen, the phone maker’s primary markets are all in Africa. The company controlled more than 40% of the African smartphone market at the end of last year, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC). Transsion also holds nearly 70% of the feature phone market, IDC data shows. The company, which operates R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya, went public on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s Nasdaq-like Star Market last year. 

Driven largely by the Chinese government, Chinese investments in Africa have historically focused on infrastructure projects. Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa reached $5.4 billion in 2018, up 30% from the year before, according to data from the China Africa Research Initiative at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. 

But things began to change that year. At the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in September 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping encouraged Chinese companies to invest $10 billion in Africa over the following three years, pronouncing an important shift from public to private investment in Africa. 

“China has demonstrated its readiness to invest in areas deemed by foreign investors and donors as too risky, not sufficiently profitable, or not high priorities in the aid agenda,” Gagliardone wrote in his book “China, Africa, and the Future of the Internet.” 

Since 2018, Chinese companies have sharpened their focus on the continent, and 2019 saw record amounts of Chinese involvement in the continent’s tech sector. 

Increased presence

Alibaba began its Africa expansion in 2017—the year founder Jack Ma made his first visit. The company believes that its experience in China prepares it to develop Africa. ”I found myself propelled twenty years back in time, to the time when Alibaba was founded,” Ma said after the trip. 

During the visit, Ma launched a $10 million fund for young Africa entrepreneurs to bring their offline businesses online and pledged to take 200 young business people to China to learn from Alibaba. 

He returned a year later when Rwanda became the first country to join Alibaba’s Electronic World Trade Platform (eWTP), which promises to make cross-border trade easier for small to medium enterprises. 

Chilli and coffee farmers in Rwanda have used the platform to sell their products on Tmall, Alibaba’s business-to-consumer marketplace, while Ethiopia became the second African country to sign eWTP agreements late last year. It remains unclear how many companies are benefiting from the initiative.

Meanwhile, other tech giants have also increased their focus on Africa. In early 2019, Chinese smartphone giant Xiaomi set up a business group to grab at sales on the continent in order to offset slowing growth at home. The move put Xiaomi at odds with well-established Chinese rivals rival Transsion and Huawei, which claimed a market share of nearly 10%. 

Transsion had been able to avoid fierce competition from domestic rivals in its home market by focusing on Africa, but those companies were now also looking abroad for new sources of growth. 

In 2015 Transsion launched music-streaming service Boomplay through a joint venture with Chinese gaming giant Netease. The service is primarily focused on the African market: 85% of its users come from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania.

The company launched the service to make its phones more attractive to buyers and to boost revenue from non-hardware sales. The initiative has so far been a success. In April last year, Boomplay raised $20 million from Chinese investors including Maison Capital and Seas Capital. 

Fintech focus

Complementing the spread of China tech in Africa, Chinese investors have also increasingly sought out startups across Africa. These investors are looking to place their bets on Africans without bank accounts.

African startups raised a total of $2 billion in 2019, more than 70% than the year before, according to data from global investment firm Partech. While Chinese investments comprised only a small portion of that total, Africa has received a major boost in attention from Chinese investors. 

Fintech services developed early in Africa. Ten years ago, fintech platforms in Africa were more developed than those in China, prior to the launch of Ant Group’s Alipay or Wechat’s Wechat Pay. “Mobile money,” which allows people to make payments, and deposit or withdraw money on even the most basic mobile phones, gained widespread adoption.

In 2017, Chinese-owned, Norway-based software company Opera pledged to invest $100 million in Africa’s digital economy. The company later launched super app Opay in Nigeria, which combined payments, food delivery, and ride-hailing services. 

Opay was a handful of fintech beneficiaries from a boom in Chinese investment in Africa’s tech sector in 2019. The company closed two funding rounds last year, raising $170 million to help its expansion plans. Investors included some of the biggest Chinese names: Meituan, Gaorong Capital, Sequoia China, and IDG Capital. 

“Opay will facilitate the people in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, and other African countries with the best fintech ecosystem that Africa has ever seen,” Zhou Yahui, CEO of Opay and founder of Kunlun, said in a statement at the time. 

But due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the company announced in July that it was suspending its non-fintech operations, including ride-hailing and food delivery service 

Meanwhile, Africa-focused fintech platform Palmpay launched in Nigeria after a $40 million investment from Transsion and Netease. The investment also included a partnership with Transsion to pre-install the Palmpay app on 20 million of Transsion’s phones this year. 

The focus on investing in fintech is driven by a broad-based effort to bring financial services to Africa’s unbanked. According to the World Bank, nearly two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africans do not have bank accounts. In 2019, fintech received the most venture funding out of any industry in Africa, according to Weetracker. 

Ant Group has taken notice of Africa’s fintech revolution. Last year the company partnered with Silicon Valley- and Lagos-based startup Flutterwave to add Alipay as a payment method for Flutterwave’s 60,000 merchants. 

In July, Ant Group partnered with South Africa mobile operator Vodacom to launch a payments app in the country. The two companies aim to tap the 11 million South Africans who don’t own bank accounts. 

Driving digital services

Africa represents an opportunity that Chinese tech firms caught onto early, and show no signs of paring back. Many of these same Chinese firms thrived after the internet boom in China and stand to leverage their knowledge to help spread digital products across Africa. 

As the digital divide on the continent narrows, more people in Africa will adopt these services, and like in India and Southeast Asia, Chinese companies and investors won’t want to miss out. Their current push onto the continent is likely only the beginning. 

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.