Kenya dismisses US in Chinese 5G spy claims


Safaricom CEO Peter Ndegwa (centre) and Communications Authority of Kenya acting Director-General Mercy Wanjau (left), and ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru during the launch of Safaricom's 5G services on March 26, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Kenya on Friday rejected US government claims that the use of China’s Huawei in the roll-out of the Safaricom fifth-generation (5G) network risks exposing the country to Chinese spying through the high speed telecoms networks.

Joe Mucheru, the Cabinet Secretary for ICT, said the US pressure on countries to ditch Huawei in new networks is politically motivated and not based on evidence showing it would enable Chinese spying.

Kenya has previously backed Safaricom-Huawei partnership, but this is the first time a top State official is addressing the US directly on the spying claims.

"Of course, as government, we have been aware of some of those questions about suppliers and technology, but those are just more political postures as opposed to the highest test of the technology," Mr Mucheru,  a former Google executive, said on Friday.

“We use the services and as government we've been able to verify that the services are secure and citizens should feel comfortable to actually use the services."

The US has been urging its European allies and others not to use Huawei, one of Safaricom’s network vendors along with Nokia, citing security concerns.

Last year, Britain announced it was reversing the decision to let Huawei participate in its 5G network following pressure from the US.

It ordered UK mobile providers to remove all of the Chinese firm’s 5G kit from their networks by 2027.

This turned the spotlight on Safaricom where UK Vodafone has a five percent stake and majority ownership of South Africa’s Vodacom, which has a 35 percent stake in the Kenya’s telco.

Safaricom last Friday launched 5G mobile internet services targeting major urban centres, making it the inaugural operator to offer commercial and superfast services in the region.

The firm, which last year completed testing and trials for the upgraded network, seeks to capitalise on burgeoning mobile Internet use in the country.

The 5G service is a central part of its attempts to further expand its data business to counter slower growth in voice calls revenue.

The service will be available in Nairobi and greater western Kenya including Kisumu, Kisii and Kakamega, which routinely witness increased data traffic.

Safaricom is targeting to grow the 5G sites to more than 150 stations across nine towns over the next 12 months.

The network has been built by Nokia and Huawei, which Washington has accused of working at the behest of Beijing.

The US says that global security and personal data will be at risk if the Chinese company dominates development of the world’s fifth-generation internet.

Huawei rejects the US campaign and has called on Washington to produce more evidence to prove the risks purportedly posed by the company.

Tensions between the world’s two largest economies have grown on a range of fronts in recent weeks, including the coronavirus, trade, espionage and Beijing’s clampdown in Hong Kong.

The China-US relationship is crucial to both sides and the wider world, with Beijing repeatedly calling on the new administration in Washington under President Joe Biden to improve relations which had deteriorated under Donald Trump.

Many countries have been caught in between the spats pitting the two global super powers amid the risks of retaliation from the US and China.

China is Kenya’s biggest external creditor, having lent it hundreds of billions of shillings for the construction of rail lines and other infrastructure projects in the past decade.

In 2019, Beijing accounted for Sh661 billion of Kenya’s outstanding bilateral debt of Sh996 billion, offering Chinese loans 66.3 percent stake. Outstanding US debt stood at Sh2 billion in 2019.

Two-way goods trade between the China and Kenya totalled Sh392 billion in 2019, up 2.8 percent from 2018. Kenya’s total trade with the US stood at Sh117 billion in 2019, up 4.9 percent from 2018.

Kenya is preparing to resume talks on a free trade agreement with the US.

Kenya wants to do a deal with Washington before the expiry of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which allows sub-Saharan African states to export thousands of products to the US without tariffs or quotas until 2025.

For Safaricom, the 5G service is a central part of its attempts to further expand its data business to counter slower growth in voice calls revenue.

Safaricom is aiming to rev up its data business to offset sluggish growth in mobile calls, where it has seen a small revenue growth due to saturation, forcing the firm to turn to M-Pesa and Internet to power growth.

The 5G launch will follow the December 2015 unveiling of the 4G network, which has helped Safaricom grow its revenues from data to Sh49.6 billion last year from Sh17.9 billion in 2015.

Data is one of Safaricom’s fastest growing revenue lines and it hopes that increased smart phone usage will boost it further.

With download speeds 10 times faster compared to 4G, the new technology will radically change how people work, communicate and stream videos.