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China’s Baidu and other technology titans push into emerging markets

Facebook may have a plan to take over emerging markets, but China’s technology titans aren’t far behind. Chinese search engine Baidu said on Jan. 14 that it has struck an agreement with France Telecom to install Baidu’s browser on low-end smartphones to sell in Africa and the Middle East, where the French telco has 81 million subscribers.

The deal is the largest Baidu has signed with a global operator, and it’s just the latest example of Chinese technology firms pushing into developing Asian, Latin American and African markets.

Baidu has already launched services in Southeast Asia, as has Tencent. Chinese PC vendor Lenovo has staked its biggest operation outside of China in Brazil where Baidu also plans to open an office. Baidu runs a question and answer service, called Zhidao (to know), in Egypt. Other Chinese companies have already been making inroads into Africa: About 25% of mobile phones in Africa are made by either Shenzhen-based Huawei and ZTE, according to Mobilethink Analytics. In the France Telecom deal, Baidu will try to appeal to cost-conscious new internet users with app-like icons for websites and the option to view pages in text-only format, using less data.

Why the push? Baidu’s CEO Robin Li once said his goal was to make the Chinese search engine a household name in at least half the world within the next decade; Baidu and other Chinese tech firms who have struggled to replicate success at home overseas are trying do that by focusing on emerging markets. There, Chinese firms face less competition from established firms.

The Baidu-France Telecom deal is also another example of China’s overall push into Africa, which is rich in energy and natural resources. Chinese investment into Africa is something of a state policy: Huawei and ZTE both received funding from Chinese policy banks China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China for their Africa projects. China is Africa’s largest trade partner with trade volume totaling $166.3 billion in 2011.

The deal also offers what could be a good business play for Baidu. Africa has one of the largest and fastest growing mobile phone markets in the world, and millions are getting online for the first time via smartphones. If Baidu becomes synonymous with the internet in Africa, Li will be one continent closer to his goal.

 

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