Smart cooperation

(China Daily Global) Updated: 2024-04-11

BRICS can partner with Africa to boost the continent's digital transformation and industrial development


[Zhang Yujun for China Daily]

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The fourth industrial revolution, which is driven by advancements in digital technology and artificial intelligence, is fundamentally reshaping the world. The new round of industrial revolution is a major area of cooperation for the BRICS member states, and also provides an opportunity for developing countries to catch up with the developed ones.

BRICS and Africa have a strong consensus on riding the wave of the new industrial revolution. The African Union regards the fourth industrial revolution as a watershed in the continent's development. In 2020, the AU summit set the target of building a unified digital market on the continent by 2030, and African nations have prioritized a digital agenda in their development plans.

International Monetary Fund data indicate that the original BRICS member states — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — accounted for 31.5 percent of the global GDP in purchasing power parity terms by October 2022, overtaking the G7 countries, and the BRICS countries' share of global GDP rose from 8.4 percent in 2001 to 25.8 percent in 2022. The fast development of the BRICS economies has been fueled by their industrial growth. Now the new industrial revolution offers an opportunity for the BRICS countries to upgrade their economy and boost their industrial prowess.

In 2017, at the BRICS Xiamen Summit, the BRICS countries formulated the Action Plan for Deepening Industrial Cooperation, and in 2018, at the Johannesburg Summit, China and South Africa proposed the BRICS Partnership on New Industrial Revolution. In 2020, the BRICS countries adopted the Strategy for BRICS Economic Partnership 2025. In 2020, a new industrial revolution innovation center for BRICS was established in Xiamen in Southeast China's Fujian province. In 2022, the BRICS Digital Economy Partnership Framework was launched, ushering in a new stage for member states to deepen cooperation on the digital economy.

The BRICS and African countries, sharing similar historical experiences and being at the same development stage, are good partners in development. In promoting the development of Africa, BRICS member states have their respective advantages.

For instance, China is a leader in boosting infrastructure construction and the economic growth of Africa; Russia is a major player in the continent's mineral industries; and India has rich experiences in areas such as retail, medicine and health, remote medical services and education training.

The BRICS countries have helped build a favorable international environment for Africa's development by pushing for the reform of the global financial system and global governance architecture. Cooperation platforms under the framework of BRICS, such as the New Development Bank and the BRICS Partnership on New Industrial Revolution Innovation Center, have brought benefits to Africa. In 2017, the NDB opened its Africa Regional Center in Johannesburg, which was the bank's first regional office. By August 2023, the bank had granted 14 loans totaling $7.4 billion to South Africa.

As Africa advances the building of the African Continental Free Trade Area and African countries face the growing need to industrialize and digitalize, BRICS and Africa should seize the opportunities presented by the new industrial revolution to turbo-charge Africa's development.

First, the priority is to improve Africa's weak digital infrastructure in communications, data and cloud computing, which is the foundation for the development of artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and other emerging industries.

Nearly 80 percent of the 3G network and 70 percent of the 4G infrastructure in Africa was built by Huawei and ZTE, and the two Chinese companies are helping construct the 5G network on the continent. BRICS countries, particularly China, have huge potential to help Africa strengthen its digital infrastructure.

Second, it is imperative to promote BRICS-Africa cooperation on the digital economy. The African Union envisions building a unified pan-African digital market by 2030 that enables universal access to digital services. The International Telecommunications Union estimated in 2019 that a 10 percent increase in mobile internet penetration in Africa would drive GDP growth of 2.5 percent. Progress in e-commerce, digital payments, and technology-enabled agriculture, mining, manufacturing and tourism is injecting new impetus into the development of Africa.

The digital economy is not only of great significance for Africa's future, but also represents tremendous opportunities for its international partners. BRICS countries have amassed rich experiences and practices in developing the digital economy and international cooperation in the area.

In 2018, China's e-commerce giant Alibaba signed a deal with Rwanda to help the country export local specialties through its electronic World Trade Platform initiative (eWTP), making Rwanda the first African country to join the platform; thanks to China's digital technologies and drones, Mozambique and Ghana have built smart farms; and China and Rwanda are cooperating on a smart fishing program. These pioneering efforts provide references for other African countries.

Third, job creation is an acute need for the BRICS-Africa cooperation in the new industrial revolution. Africa's fast population growth poses a severe employment challenge for regional countries. While the new industrial revolution is creating jobs, it requires higher skills of workers. This necessitates establishing vocational training in African countries. BRICS countries, which have accumulated extensive expertise in industrial cooperation, technology transfer and vocational training, are well-positioned to support Africa in this endeavor.

Last, the African Continental Free Trade Area is a major strategy to fuel development, attract investment and boost the competitiveness of African countries. Technologies and innovations catalyzed by the new industrial revolution will accelerate the building of the AfCFTA. Development in big data, e-commerce, smart governance and IoT will help break down the information barrier that has long hampered economic integration among African countries. Therefore, the new industrial revolution presents an opportunity to facilitate the building of the AfCFTA and advance regional integration, and the BRICS-Africa collaboration in that area can become a highlight in the group's international cooperation.

The author is a senior research fellow and deputy director at the Center for West Asian and African Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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