China’s soft power in Africa, Zim dollar’s return, UFC’s Nigerian moment

Hi, Quartz Africa readers!

Digitally vulnerable

As African countries economies and governments digitize rapidly the need for transparent rules about what happens with citizens’ data is becoming a more pressing issue.

Nigeria is at the early stages of trying to roll out a major national biometric digital ID program. Kenya is further along with its ambitious, but controversial, Huduma Namba project which covers many details about citizens even including DNA. Kenyan activists have raised alarm over the scope of information the government is collecting. Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, the government has been teaming with Chinese tech companies which have been experimenting with facial recognition technology.

It’s fascinating to hear activists and African public intellectuals (okay, people on Twitter) fret over how governments will use their data. But as has been noted elsewhere before, when it comes to digital-savvy (mostly young) Africans, Facebook, WhatsApp and Google probably know a lot more about us than our own governments. So who in Africa is keeping an eye on these Silicon Valley giants? Is our data safe with them?

And it’s not just Silicon Valley, Shenzhen, China-based Transsion, which sells more phones than anyone else in Africa, has been moving up the value chain from being just a hardware maker to expanding its consumer software offering with consumer offers like the Boomplay music service. Or Opera News, the service that comes with the Chinese-owned browser of the same name.

Two stories this week highlighted the high stakes for Africans in the digital age. The Financial Times reported on the WhatsApp hack by governments using software made by an Israeli company and highlighted how it was used to target Rwandan dissidents outside the country. Meanwhile, Stanford University’s Stanford Lab released a report showing Russia has been targeting African politics and elections via social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram.

It’s not that African countries and citizens are necessarily more vulnerable than those in more advanced economies. But there’s a lack of clarity of the legal boundaries in many African countries. And given the future of the continent’s still fledgling democracies and growing economies is digital, it is worth having a clear strategy to mitigate the worst-case scenarios and more importantly take advantage of the opportunities available.

This lack of a plan leads to governments always having to react. It’s why every challenge inevitably ends up becoming a crisis with the last tool in the box always being the first one used: internet shutdowns.

Yinka Adegoke, Quartz Africa editor

Stories from this week

Nigeria’s Benin border closure is an early warning sign for the African free trade deal’s optimism. The government of president Buhari wants to stop rice from Vietnam and Thailand getting into Nigeria via neighbor Benin. But Landry Signé and Colette van de Ven worry this doesn’t augur well for the promise and the optimism of AfCFTA free trade deal signed just three months earlier.  Instead of taking unilateral action that impacts its neighbors and drives up food prices, the Nigerian government should spend more time looking within to fix its dysfunctional customs department, argues Stephen Onyeiwu.

China wants state media to peddle its “soft power” in Africa, but tech platforms are a better bet. Chinese state-backed media companies in Africa have attempted to play up the country’s profile among African audiences over the past decade. However, as Celine Sui outlines, a crop of online news platforms developed by Chinese tech companies are enjoying far more success reaching local audiences.

Russia is targeting African elections with misinformation campaigns on Facebook and Instagram. Russia’s attempts to foster its interest and grow its economic influence in Africa to counter China have not been limited to arms trades and a first-ever summit. In line with its recent global internet tactics, Russia has been linked to an elaborate social media operation that spreads propaganda and targets African elections, reports Yomi Kazeem. 

How to understand why Zimbabwe is bringing back the Zim dollar and the limits of mobile money. Zimbabwe’s infamously hyper-inflated local currency might be making a comeback as part of the government’s currency reforms. But amid lingering cash shortages, sharp price rises and high mobile money premiums, Tawanda Karombo in Harare breaks down the economic nuances of the move.

How colonial rule committed Africa to fragile authoritarianism.

“The first rigged elections held in Africa were those organized by Britain and France,”

write Nic Cheeseman and Jonathan Fisher

. In a piece that looks at the authoritarian tendencies of African democracies post-colonialism, they argue the colonial era strengthened the power of “Big Men” over their communities and undermined pre-colonial checks and balances.

One of the world’s fastest-growing sports is building its brand around these Nigerian stars. Mixed martial arts has grown rapidly to become a $7 billion sports business thanks to the brand power of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The UFC has featured several African fighters as it’s expanded, explains Chidinma Irene Nwoye, and now two of its superstar champions are Nigerian-born Israel Adesanya and Kamaru Usman.

The Dealmaker

Kenyan startups are on hot-streak with investors backing companies working across agriculture to logistics. Twiga Foods, the Kenya-based agribusiness logistics startup, raised $30 million in a Series B round led by Goldman Sachs. The round also saw participation from existing investors TLcom Capital, IFC and Creadev. The company also raised an additional $6 million in debt. After five years of operations in Kenya, Twiga will pursue expansions plans across the continent, starting first with Francophone West Africa…Wefarm, the Nairobi and London-based agric startup which operates a digital network and marketplace for small holder farmers, raised $13 million in a Series A financing round led by True VenturesSendy, the Nairobi-headquartered on-demand logistics startup received $2 million in funding from Goodwell Investments, a Netherlands-based fund. Sendy, which currently operates in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, has lined up expansion plans to other East African countries…The recent investment streak for Kenyan startups follows on the heels of the corporate makeover by BitPesa, the Nairobi-based fintech startup, last week. BitPesa rebranded to become AZA Group and secured $15 million in debt financing from the Development Bank of Southern Africa.

Chart of the Week

African countries keep building new cities to meet rapid urbanization even if people won’t live in them. 120 new cities are being built across 40 African countries as governments aim to shore up housing deficits amid ballooning population growth. But with in-built conceptualization flaws, these billion-dollar cities stand the risk of becoming ghost towns.

Other things we liked

The trouble with Big Chocolate and West Africa’s cocoa farmers. Major chocolate producers like Mars and Cadbury’s often try to distance themselves from the less savory aspects of their supply chain. For the Washington Post, Steven Mufson and photograher Salwan Georges visited chocolate factories in the US and spoke to West African farmers about the challenges of deforestation, climate change and child labor among others.

From game changer to railway to nowhere: the rise and fall of Kenya’s Lunatic Line 2.0. When the recently commissioned Chinese-built Nairobi-Naivasha 120-kilometer rail extension of the Nairobi-Mombasa line was found to end in a sleepy cattle-rearing town called Suswa, it was an “economic puzzle”, writes economist David Ndii for The Elephant. He points out the bulk of the cargo coming through the Mombasa port is either destined for Nairobi, or is in transit to Uganda and beyond.

Do Africans have the right of abode in South Africa? “In South Africa’s public mind,  the term “foreign nationals” is a euphemism, a supposedly polite way to designate those who do not belong, those Black Africans whose home is elsewhere,” wrote Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe for his Ruth First lecture at Wits University last month. Mbembe called for Africa to adopt a pro-migration stance, phase out colonial borders and become “a vast space of circulation.”


Eiffel Excellence Scholarship Program 2020. Backed by the French ministry for Europe and foreign affairs, the Eiffel Excellence Scholarship Program is designed for foreign students to enroll for masters & PhD study in France. (Jan. 9)

Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling. The award is seeking entries from up and coming journalists with less than 10 years of experience working in Africa for print, broadcast and online news media. (Dec. 15)

Regional Alliance for Youth. Nestle is partnering with government and corporate partners to create employability, mentorship and training programs to equip young Africans with essential workplace skills.

Keep an eye on

Mauritius elections (Nov. 7). The island country will go to the polls on Thursday after prime minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth dissolved parliament in October. Jugnauth, who is seeking re-election, has served as prime minister since 2017 when he took over from his father.

Twitter’s Jack Dorsey tours Africa. Twitter chief executive and co-founder, Jack Dorsey, will spend the month traveling across Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa to spend time with innovators and entrepreneurs.

*This brief was produce while listening to Good Times by Kagwe Mungai (Kenya). [Spotify]

Our best wishes for a productive and ideas-filled week ahead. Please send any news, comments, suggestions, ideas, “foreign rice” and UFC tickets to You can follow us on Twitter at @qzafrica for updates throughout the day.

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