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Are Chinese IT companies doing enough to train locals in Africa?

The Chinese telecom giant Huawei recently launched a massive publicity campaign to raise awareness in Africa about all that it is doing to train local employees.

The company has opened at least five training centers in different countries across the continent and claims that it has provided skills training to 12,000 Africans students every year. Every year, Huawei sponsors thousands of IT engineers from Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria among others to travel to the company’s headquarters in southern China for additional  skills development.

Now the company says it wants to move beyond simple training programs to actually seeding African technology innovation. In July, Huawei announced a new partnership with South Africa’s Department of Telecommunications and Postal Service to build new innovation centers to foster IT development. Similar centers are expected to launch elsewhere in Africa over the next few years.

Africa is one of the fastest growing markets for Huawei as the company seeks to chip away at Samsung’s regional dominance in mobile phones. In Kenya, for example, Huawei now has 50% market share for hand phones and is similarly strong in other fast growing African countries where a growing number of consumers are switching from basic feature phones to low-cost Android-powered smart phones.

Given the importance and the vast potential of the African IT market, it makes a lot of sense for Huawei to invest in developing its local talent. Chinese companies, though, don’t have the best reputation for labor relations and skills transfer in Africa. While some of the criticism of the Chinese is based on unfounded rumors and falsehoods, there are though legitimate reasons to be skeptical of Huawei’s claims.

While Huawei has been quite aggressive about publicizing its new training programs, the company is characteristically shy about revealing the actual effectiveness of these programs and whether the skills taught by the company are useful beyond Huawei and will young people to find jobs with other companies in the IT market. It is hard to tell, especially observing from the outside, as there really has not been much research done on the quality of Huawei’s skills development programs. So for now it is almost impossible to determine if all the media hoopla the company is generating is legitimate  or just the typical corporate public relations propaganda.

Johns Hopkins University masters candidate Ben Tsui wanted to find out. Ben recently completed a policy brief for the China-Africa Research Initiative on Huawei’s training programs and skills transfer initiatives in Africa. He joins Eric & Cobus to discuss his findings and whether or not Huawei deserves all of the attention that it’s getting for its efforts to develop local IT talent across Africa.

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