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Cheap Chinese Networks: Are Africans Being Taken for a Jolly Ride?

06 June, 2013
ICT Africa
June 6, 2013

So much controversy surrounds Chinese telecommunication vendors, especially Huawei. In some parts of the world they are accused of embedding cyber-attack or spy software in their equipment. Huawei’s affiliation with the Chinese army has especially been a major source of concern about potential security breaches when British Telecom contracted Huawei. In some cases they are accused of dumping equipment gear. Huawei has been black listed in Australia and effectively prevented from doing business in the USA by the Obama admiration because of some of these accusations. In Africa, Chinese companies have been accused of unethical business practices and the supply of substandard equipment and services.

There are many incidents in Africa that seem to corroborate these accusations. We have already shared a story on ICT Africa in which Huawei used 24 standard fibre cable instead of a more expensive 48 hybrid fibre cable that the Ugandan government had paid for. This was discovered after network rollout was already complete and resulted in the angry President Yoweri Museveni ordering an inquiry.

We have heard of very poor cable installation by a Chinese contractor in mountainous areas of Zimbabwe. Sections of the cable are said to be clearly visible from the road due to substandard installation that does not comply with international standards and practices. When cable is installed this way, it is vulnerable to destruction by bush fires and roaming heads of Buffalo and other wild beasts. This would cause long network downtime and loss of revenues that would wipe out whatever savings was gained from the poor installation.

We learnt recently that an operator in Angola has to rebuild an entire fibre-optic network which was only commissioned about five years ago due to the poor quality of fibre and installation that quickly makes the entire network obsolete. It is very troubling that a multi-million dollar network typically intended for more than twenty years has to be rebuilt only after five years. Such practices make the overall cost of network ownership extremely exorbitant, making the perceived original savings meaningless. We are hoping that the network was built under warranty and that the contractor is responsible for the costly rebuild.

The promise of cheap equipment and network rollout services and easy vendor financing supported by the Chinese government through the EXIM Bank attracts Africans to Chinese vendors. Usually, the vendor is contracted to do everything from surveys, network design, supply and delivery of all equipment, installation and sometimes even operation of the network on behalf of the owner. They usually outsource cheap cable supply mostly to Chinese suppliers and cable installation to cheap, ill-equipped and inexperienced local installers to keep cost down and generate large margins for the vendor.

Serious problems arise when the network owner lacks the knowledge of what it takes for a network to be developed for longevity, high quality of service and lower operating costs. Some network owners hand over all aspects of the project to the vendor, look the other way and trust that the vendor will provide them with what they need. We are aware that the Kenyan government is offering their new network to Huawei to handle everything without any in-house expertise to ensure that they get what they are paying for. It just doesn’t work that way in the business world and certainly not with Chinese vendors. You can trust but verify.

The burden is on the network owner to decide what network components will meet their long term goals, what network installation practices will be required and ensure all other aspects of a properly functioning network. The owner should then specify their requirements, test incoming components against specification and monitor the network rollout process. At a minimum, if network operators do not have in-house capacity to make the necessary specifications, they should hire an independent consultant to help them. Consultants should be hired only once and after that in-house capacity should be developed so that Africa in not perpetually dependent on outsiders for everything.

While I believe that some Chinese vendors have been taking some African operators for a jolly ride, I don’t entirely blame the Chinese. If African operators don’t demand the best for their money, they will continue to be taken for a jolly ride. After all, if a people are being robbed and they cannot figure it out, maybe they should be robbed even more so that they can get it.


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