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Which infrastructure is required to support the rise of digital in Africa?

By: Fabrice Coquio

Following a wave of massive urbanisation and economic growth in many megacities, the African continent, long considered as disconnected, has taken the digital turn. According to McKinsey, only 16% of the population of one billion Africans were connected in 2013, compared to 28% to date, and digital could make a contribution of 300 billion dollars to African GDP by 2025. A Cisco survey also predicts that data traffic on mobiles will multiply by 12 between 2016 and 2021. But this digital revolution which is already under way, and the opportunities which ensue from it can only work in certain conditions.

Boosted by several factors such as strong demographic growth, the emergence of the middle classes in some large cities, and the generalisation of smartphones, Africa has embarked on an unprecedented technological leap. If we look at the digital transition that has been engaged much earlier on other continents, Africa's one is marked by its rapidity. In less than 10 years, some countries have moved towards “full mobile”, while others have gone further in adopting a certain number of digital innovations. Kenya, for example, is one of the first countries to have massively deployed mobile banking solutions.

This digital development is not just in response to the notion of technological catch-up. Innovation is also one of the main drivers. It is also paving the way for development prospects for several sectors, such as Finance, which is benefiting from the growth of smartphone use and mobile payments; Health, with an improved prevention of illnesses; but also Education, with many investments, notably in e-learning.

To support this evolution and respond to new practices, operations in terms of buying and the concentration of networks have multiplied, leading to the emergence of actors which have quickly reached a significant number of customers. These investments reflect the strategic interest of the African continent for global network and infrastructure operators.

However, the digital revolution cannot be generalised to the whole of the continent. It consists of 54 disparate countries, both from a demographic and economic point of view, and strong inequalities continue to exist. Furthermore, not all geographic zones have the same ease of access to digital content yet.

At the moment, the digital boom is mainly benefiting the coastal megacities. Those on the East benefit from the presence of multiple submarine cables towards Europe and also towards the Gulf countries, India and Asia. On the other side, less well equipped in terms of numbers of cables, West Africa is turning more to the American continent and Western Europe.

But, to support acceleration of digital projects, guarantee their performance and thus meet new businesses and consumer practices, a robust, secure and reliable infrastructure is required, and the first element of which is the data centre. However, such a project is vast and can be slowed down by a number of obstacles.

First, it is difficult to identify significant data centres equipped with the latest technologies interconnected with global networks, like hubs installed in Europe and the United States. This does not mean that there aren’t data centres in Africa, but simply that their design is not ideal to meet the rapid evolution of practices and the exponential increase of data which will necessarily go hand-in-hand with demographic development.

Connection hubs and digital content will be necessary in Africa in order for the digital economy to really take flight. Data centres will have to be correctly located, mainly in large cities which concentrate some of the population, usages and international traffic via submarine cables. However, like other continents, not all African cities will be eligible to create connectivity hubs and data. In fact, there are environmental conditions which are not conducive to the installation of data centres (high temperatures, desert zones, etc.), and employment basins which do not contain the necessary skills and knowledge to design and maintain in operational conditions these hubs.

Other obstacles will have to be lifted to encourage the installation of data centres which correspond to the notion of “hub”. Such examples are fibre optic equipment, which is underdeveloped, and particularly high network costs, due to the absence of deregulation.

Some states have even legislated to encourage the markets to open up. But the reality is quite different and we can still observe state monopolies which are complicating connection attempts, driven by international digital players, to domestic infrastructure or submarine cable stations.

Lastly, the notion of international connectivity is still in its infancy. While the ACE cable which serves the Atlantic coast of the continent can reach total capacity of 5.12 terabytes per second, this is nothing compared to the 40 terabytes of the AAE-1 cable which connects Marseille to Asia via Africa and the Middle East. Local network capacities are therefore still weak.

However, we can see several investments that aims to address this challenge of building an international connectivity hub: a submarine cable should connect Brazil to Angola in 2018 to reduce latency between the two continents concerned. In addition, the installation of a cable to connect Pakistan to Oman (SRG-1) via Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya (G2A) will foster exchanges between Africa and South Asia. However, the most telling initiatives are certainly those driven by actors such as Morocco, or Tunisia, for direct interconnection with the Marseille hub, and thus to benefit from its capacities, its neutrality in terms of service suppliers and carriers (+120 connectivity operators), and more widely its international scope.

The digital revolution in Africa has begun, and much more progress still awaits. Despite a few obstacles, a certain number of initiatives have been started in order to strengthen the bases for the digital transition in Africa, to accelerate it and let it fulfil its potential. But the sustainability of this digital development depends on certain conditions. The legal framework and investments must be optimised and strengthened, of course, but the development of innovation can only take place with the help of robust infrastructures, of which the data centre is the cornerstone. While there are no hubs at present, states and economic players must consider solutions outside the continent. Marseille, an international data campus and a crossroads of interconnectivity, can act as the first African hub. Within a few years, some towns might also emerge and play the role of hubs in sub-regions, such as Alexandria or Casablanca, and perhaps a bit later on in Lagos or Abidjan.