Henitsoa Rafalia/World Bank

Private Firms Taking a Lead in China’s Health Silk Road Initiative in Africa

“[We] stand shoulder to shoulder with Africa and stand ready to provide our unqualified support,” Jack Ma said at a virtual conference on COVID-19 with African health experts on April 29, 2020. This meeting followed the delivery of several healthcare cargos by the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Group in the previous weeks. While the Chinese government was busy confronting the pandemic at home, it was private Chinese firms like Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group that took a lead in healthcare assistance to Africa as soon as the pandemic spread to that continent.

These private initiatives were welcomed and encouraged by the Chinese government as it engaged in an active pandemic-related healthcare delivery and support program for Africa throughout 2020. Furthermore, this initiative was a component of China’s broader strategy of promoting the “Health Silk Road” as a new branch of the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa. Based on publicly released information, Chinese private firms delivered a substantial amount of healthcare assistance to African countries. For instance, the Jack Ma Foundation and the Alibaba Group donated a total of 5.4 million masks, 40,000 sets of protective clothing, 60,000 protective face shields, and 1.08 million testing kits to Ethiopia on March 22, 2020. This was followed immediately with a second delivery on April 6th, and a third delivery on April 27th.

In sum, Jack Ma and his Alibaba Group donated at least 10 million masks, 450,000 pieces of protective clothing & face shields, 800 ventilators, 1 million pairs of gloves, 4,000 forehead thermometers, and other important medical supplies. In addition, a number of Chinese private-owned enterprises joined Alibaba Group and provided immediate help to African countries, including a 2-million-yuan donation from Huajian Group, and protective equipment from Zhende Medical Co. Ltd. and Yichang Humanwell Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., all of which have trade relations or subsidiaries in Africa.

Sellers socially distancing in a Kenyan market. (Sambrian Mbaabu/World Bank)

The Chinese private firms have also played a leading role in offering telemedicine services to Africa. In March 2020, along with the dispatch of medical aid to African countries, the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Group also established a large telemedicine platform called Global MediXchange for Combating COVID-19 (GMCC) to provide medical doctors and healthcare providers around the world with Chinese medical expertise. The platform has close ties with Alibaba’s healthcare arm Ali Health and its cloud computing and artificial intelligence technology provider Alibaba Cloud. This platform is expected to be an important component of Ali Health activities in Africa.

As an example, Ali Health has sponsored several training programs for African health facilities. On April 15, 2020, it collaborated with the Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital (SRRSH), (an affiliation of the Zhejiang University School of Medicine), to organize a video conference with more than 40 directors of Rwandan hospitals and Daniel Ngamije, the Rwandan minister of health, to discuss anti-pandemic measures. In the video conference, Chinese experts shared experience and knowledge about containing COVID-19, hospital management, emergency treatment, COVID-19 testing, quarantine measures, and training of medical personnel. By the end of April, the Jack Ma Foundation and Ali Health had held six training sessions exclusively for African medical doctors and experts on GMCC to help them better prepare for pandemic treatment and containment.

Chinese private firms have also been active in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to Africa. Even though COVID vaccines are developed by Chinese state-owned or state-associated enterprises, Chinese private firms are assisting with its transportation and distribution. On November 29, 2020, Cainiao Global, Alibaba’s logistics arm, said it had established the country’s first cross-border cold-chain route with Ethiopian Airlines, that would ship COVID-19 vaccines and other healthcare products. The cargo would be sent from Shenzhen City to Ethiopia weekly and then transported to other countries via Addis Ababa. This new medical air route is a supplement to Alibaba Group’s other logistical project in Ethiopia, the Electronic World Trade Platform (EWTP), which includes establishing advanced logistics infrastructure to support the movement of goods, capital, and information.

The proactive involvement of Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group in the provision of healthcare materials and services to Africa, which is occurring with the blessing of the Chinese government is partly a result of the higher efficiency of such firms in the delivery of services in comparison to state-owned enterprises. It also represents a new direction in the attitude of the Chinese government since 2017 toward the role of the private sector in China’s global engagement strategy. It demonstrates that as China is promoting the Health Silk Road in Africa, it is also giving a more prominent role to large Chinese private conglomerates such as the Alibaba Group. We observe a similar trend in the expanding role of the private sector in other new branches of the Belt and Road Initiative such as the Digital Silk Road.