Africa’s digital sovereignty threatened by big power rivalry
China’s ability to create data centers in Africa is a significant part of the emergence of the larger Fourth Industrial Revolution. Beijing is helping African states manage their affairs along the lines of governance and media and communications. This phenomenon can be viewed in the context of the fight over 3G through 5G technologies that challenges Western and European interests.
Currently, most of Africa’s data is kept in Africa. But that fact is changing quickly. At the start of 2020, Africa had only 112 data centers. The amount of electricity required to run data centers is huge. Research shows that the continent needs 1,000 MW across 700 data facilities to bring capacity in line with demand. This electrical issue needs to be thought out more by practitioners.
The stakes are huge in Africa, where heads of state and their ministers are weighing up issues of digital sovereignty. About 50 percent of Africa’s 3G networks and 70 percent of its 4G networks are run by Chinese telecom giant Huawei. However, in South Africa, Amazon has decided to establish itself in Cape Town and Johannesburg in competition with Huawei, which has also started building two data centers in the country.
Huawei has come in for increasing criticism in the US and EU, just as Beijing is upping its game in Africa. China’s most recent addition is a contract to establish a data center for the government in Senegal. The Senegalese state IT agency is working closely with Huawei to create the largest data center in West Africa. Dakar is playing a major role in national data “creation” by emphasizing its model, potentially over South Africa’s own data hub. Huawei supports African states in their digital transformation because the digital economy is the future of the continent. But since 2018, the company has been regularly accused by Western competitors and stakeholders of manipulating the African Union for political gain.
Africa’s data centers and cloud activity are attracting more foreign powers. According to research, Africa Data Centers, PAIX Data Centers and Etix Everywhere are increasingly recognized players on the continent from their home bases in Europe. And the American and Chinese giants in this sector are beginning to create a $500 million industry that is attracting investment funds.
Huawei is active in most African countries. It was last year negotiating an €80 million ($88 million) contract involving 800 km of optical fiber and 900 surveillance cameras for the “Smart Burkina” project in Burkina Faso, with the money provided by China’s Exim Bank.
China’s activity is advancing in fiber optics too. In May 2020, China Mobile, together with seven other partners, announced the creation of the 37,000 km “2Africa” cable to connect Africa with the Middle East. The cable is to surround the African continent, with landings in 16 countries, and will underpin the growth of 5G and broadband access for hundreds of millions of people. This arc of communications is an important emerging component in China’s strategy in Africa, as it links up with emerging telecoms, tied to data centers, especially for the Horn of Africa.
However, Google is now challenging China in the cable domain. Google’s Equiano subsea internet cable landed in Togo this month. First announced in 2019, Equiano is Google’s 14th investment in internet subsea cables, but the first dedicated to internet access in Africa. The cable runs from Portugal to South Africa and is part of the company’s $1 billion Africa investment, which includes a $50 million venture capital startup fund. While the world moves ahead with 5G, most Togolese still rely on 3G and even that only covers two-thirds of the country.
Huawei has been regularly accused by Western competitors and stakeholders of manipulating the African Union for political gain.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
The Google announcement came two weeks after a former Huawei subsidiary, HMN Technologies, announced that the company had started to construct trunk lines on the 720 km Senegal Horn of Africa Regional Express Cable, which will create the first high-capacity direct link from Africa to the Cape Verde archipelago. Cape Verde is an important strategic maritime point in the Atlantic Ocean.
Overall, it appears that data center competition in Africa rests on where optical cables exist. The cloud security architecture that is emerging is one of confrontation over the management of Africa’s data and, ultimately, Fourth Industrial Revolution communications. Digital sovereignty in Africa is unlikely to exist.
- Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @tkarasik