Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei says it wants to train up to 3 million African youths to work with cutting-edge digital technology such as artificial intelligence. Already, Nigerian students who took part in a Huawei-sponsored information and communications technology (ICT) competition say the benefits, including possible job placements with the company, are enormous. But experts warn there could be potential negative impacts of China's growing tech influence in Africa.
Computer engineering finalist Muhammad Maihaja is set to graduate from the Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria’s Kaduna state in November.
In 2019, he was part of a team of six from the school who represented Nigeria at the global Huawei ICT competition in Shenzhen, China, where they finished in third place.
Huawei introduced the competition to Africa in 2014 to identify and nurture highly skilled ICT professionals — what the company says is part of its expanding talent search in Africa's tech sector that has benefited some 2,000 African students like Maihaja.
“We have been exposed to devices and technologies we've never experienced before. As normal university students, we would not have experienced what we did experience in the competition. So, I'll say ... this has made me much more ICT inclined, so to say,” Maihaja said.
The competition evaluates students' competence in network and cloud technology. Maihaja and his team's success in 2019 was a rare achievement for an African team, let alone a first-time participant.
The feat inspired many other students like Hamza Atabor who tried out for the next edition in 2020. He and the other Nigerian students this time won the competition.
“I was inspired by, you know, when they talked about their stories, how they won the competition, and also when they were given their prizes and everything. I just felt, OK, this is something to actually make a sacrifice for,” Atabor said.
Students like Maihaja and Atabor are meeting Huawei's set objective, but critics say the company is only a fragment of China's fast-paced dominance in Africa's technology landscape.
Huawei reportedly accounts for more than 70% of the continent's telecommunications network.
Mohammed Bashir Muazu, a professor of computer engineering at Ahmadu Bello University, says it's no surprise China is gaining traction in Africa.
“Seeing the level of technological developments in China, I think what is actually happening is inevitable,” Muazu said.
Concerns about China's presence in Africa grew in 2019 after U.S. newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, reported that Huawei had helped Ugandan and Zambian authorities spy on political opponents.
Huawei denied the accusations and declined an interview on the matter.
But ICT expert Samuel Adekola says China could use its competitive advantage for selfish gains.
“It's really dangerous. I cannot quantify how much they could do, but whoever has data, you can do a lot of things. You have a lot of information about a group of people, the nation,” Adekola said.
As long as China continues to invest in Africa, students like Maihaja and Atabor will learn valuable skills, even though experts say Africa may have to pay a price for relying too heavily on foreign companies.