No sustainability without infrastructure

image from samatar's essay 'no sustainability without infrastructure' form the pdf of the proof

Digital technologies have become widely democratised in Africa: this helps support sustainable digital transformation.

By the end of 2020, nearly 500 million people had access to mobile services in sub-Saharan Africa— that’s 45% of the population. These figures are promising and there is hope that digital sovereignty— the ability for the continent to control its own digital destiny— is achievable.

By the end of 2025, it’s estimated that 65% of connections to the internet will come from a smartphone—that will be around 680 million users.

Despite the impressive statistics, the pandemic highlighted gaps in Africa’s digital transformation. Before we can take the urgent action that’s needed at continental, regional and national level, we must understand the wider digital context. To do this, we should focus our analysis on 2 categories:

1. Digital infrastructure.

2. Digital services.

1. Digital infrastructure

Infrastructure falls into 2 parts: connectivity and datacentres.

National and international connectivity

Our digital infrastructure challenges in Africa are mainly related to a lack of sufficient national and cross-border connectivity. In addition, many African countries don’t produce network connectivity equipment themselves so instead they rely on foreign companies to produce and install it.

However, despite there being many risks for African countries in terms of their digital sovereignty (namely, their access to 5G technology and applications linked to the fourth industrial revolution), geopolitical and international trade reasons make it difficult for Africa to move away from its current external dependency on digital infrastructure development. It’s therefore essential that we diversify our international partners. We must also look to increase our local production of at least part of the required connectivity infrastructure which will help us forge balanced and sustainable partnerships with African private operators.

We’ve recently seen an emergence of large African companies within the road infrastructure sub-sector of the construction industry. A major expense of laying fibre optics infrastructure is the civil engineering aspect of the process so it would be extremely opportunistic for those native companies to position themselves as experts in this field. If they forge partnerships with international equipment manufacturers, they could be competitive. Another consideration should be around how we make sure used products such as fibre optic and active equipment complies with the international standards of imported goods.

A further complication to more widespread connectivity is that not many African countries are good environments for ‘carriers’ carrier’ business development. This is where a telecommunications group sells or leases bandwidth on its own infrastructure to another telecom carrier so they can sell it to their customers. If this happened more often, it would be easier to meet the demand for cross-border connectivity. At the moment, several major submarine cables projects already exist or are planned such as Africa Coast to Europe (ACE), West Africa Cable System (WACS), Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy), as well as 2Africa led by Facebook. Capacities offered by alternative networks (OPGW and railway fibre optic links) are also barely developed or used despite many regional energy projects that include these facilities across the continent.

Datacentres

Many African countries lack national strategies or policies for setting up and promoting a national sovereign cloud. Additionally, Africa has a lack of datacentres that are compliant with international standards. This is likely why many countries have little choice but to store data on private servers of specific public organisations.

As a result, sharing information—even within the same public organisation—is extremely challenging. The difficulties mean that some African countries might be tempted to make tactical hosting arrangements with private sector hosting providers that promise more reliability and lower operating costs. It would be pragmatic to build strong, in-house cloud architecture skills so that government services could use sovereign cloud strategically and data could be stored and shared responsibly.

2. Digital services

Across the continent, technology has the power to:

1. Promote inclusion through better access to services.

2. Increase efficiency because of the automation of delivery.

3. Accelerate innovation in various socio-economic sectors, for example the emergence of applications like telemedicine, the use of drones in agriculture, and electronic money.

Despite everything they offer, digital services in Africa are still largely nascent, although some countries have succeeded in implementing solid and necessary foundations, for example national digital identity systems, digital financial services, cybersecurity and electronic certification platforms—these are all strong starts to the digitalisation of their economies.

Africa must now invest in creating well-articulated national strategies and policies.

Each one should be backed with detailed action plans, and should include studies on how priority programmes of work will integrate with existing infrastructure. Identifying these things will help support both sectoral and national development objectives, in the light of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Digital sovereignty stems from digital ecosystems

Digital infrastructure and digital services are not the only important factors that contribute to true digital sovereignty. Governments have another role to play. They need to develop internet-era policies and the right governance to implement them. Although it’s useful to get inspiration from international good practices, it’s important that these policies are designed by people in Africa, who have the interest of the local populations at heart. We have a growing talent pool with the expertise we need to move forward on these topics, we just need to involve them in the digital transformation of their countries.

A lot of good progress has been made, but we still have work to do.

Public Digital