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Transforming Africa's digital landscape

Clarissa Herrmann
May 28, 2019

US-based tech giants and China are helping to fund the development of Africa's digital infrastructure revolution. Do the potential benefits outweigh the risks?

A group of school boys in The Ivory Coast using computers
Image: AFP/Getty Images

African countries are now the world leaders when it comes to the use of mobile networks for everything from money transfers to government services. But Africa's digital revolution could be much more advanced if it weren't for the blatant lack of reliable infrastructure across the continent.

Things are changing, however. 

US tech giants such as Facebook, Amazon and Google are pushing their way into Africa's digital market. They're investing in satellites, helium balloons and drones so that even the most remote corners of the continent can become connected. The Chinese-led 'Digital Silk Road' project has also been getting lots of attention. The project aims to help developing countries expand their digital infrastructure and involves China taking technology from telecommunications company Huawei to Africa.

Read more: Internet in Africa: Empowerment or exploitation?

'Internet deserts' 

The projects have fertile ground to work on. Despite Africa's own achievements in the digital sector, the market is far from fully tapped and there is a need for greater investment.

According to a recent study by the World Bank, based on a series of surveys, just one in five people – or 20% of people – in sub-Saharan Africa uses the internet. This puts the continent well below the global average of internet users, which is just over 50 percent.  

However, these figures don't take into account regional differences within Africa.

"In some countries, such as Liberia, Kenya or the Maghreb countries, [the internet] reaches 80 percent of the population, while other regions are veritable internet deserts," Felix Blanc from Internet Sans Frontiers (ISF), an international internet rights organization, told DW.

For example, the Central African Republic (CAR) is located far away from the coast and so is unable to access the high-performance submarine internet cables, which are connected to international hubs. 

Two young men in Nigeria look at their mobile phones while standing in a carpark
The internet is usually accessible in urban areas across Africa but is still exposed to censorship and shutdownsImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Heunis

Share of state-owned telecommunications companies in decline

The classic, multinational telecommunication giants such as South-African based MTN, French-owned Orange SA and Indian Bharti Airtel remain the biggest players in Africa's internet infrastructure, with government-run companies now only playing a minor role.

While nearly half of all African service providers were state-owned in 2000, only around one fifth are currently active.

This is mostly due to the increased costs of running such a company, explains political scientist Tina Freyburg: "Many states cannot afford this on their own and are therefore dependent on the investment of foreign companies." This makes for an interesting problem: "Who can enter the market, and who will succeed?" 

That's a dilemma for the governments themselves. It's evident that controlling a country's digital infrastructure is now a key factor of maintaining power — especially for authoritarian regimes.

In the context of elections and demonstrations, for example, some African governments have previously made it difficult to access popular individual apps such as Twitter or Facebook, while some have blocked internet access altogether. 

African regimes don't want to lose this instrument of power and so are now putting pressure on the service providers who are usually willing to cooperate. According to Blanc, even European companies such as Orange accept censorship if that means gaining access to new markets. These economic actors would also become complicit if the governments threatened to withdraw their licenses.

A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket launch at night
The first 60 Starlink satellites were launched on a Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket in MayImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Raoux

Read more: Africa reaches for the stars

First 60 satellites now in space

But resistance is growing — from some unlikely players. After all, censorship and internet shutdowns don't just affect the users themselves. The providers of internet services and popular apps such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are also dependent on the existing digital infrastructure.

"For example, if a company like MTN is involved in an internet shutdown in Uganda, then of course Facebook is switched off," explains Freyburg.

Maintaining independence from the telecommunications companies — and thus also from the censorship of authoritarian regimes — is one of the reasons why the tech giants are striving to help shape the infrastructure market.

Consultant and internet activist Steve Song is convinced that Africa is being catapulted to the forefront of technological development, thanks to investments from the US. He should know — since 2014, Song has compiled an annual report analyzing the current state of internet infrastructure on the continent. He has high hopes for a new generation of satellites financed by major US-based tech companies.

"Elon Musk's Space X had a project called Starlink, which is a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites," he told DW. The first 60 of the planned 12,000 satellites were launched into space on May 24. 

"Amazon have also announced something called Project Kuiper, which is another constellation of low Earth orbit satellites," Song said.

"If even one of these is successful, it could be potentially transformative in terms of [internet] access in rural areas, because they would deliver services virtually anywhere."

A new and fairer internet model

A large, transparent Project Loon balloon with a solar panel attached is launched into the stratosphere from the project site in Nevada
A Project Loon balloon is launched into the stratosphere from the project site in Nevada. It is currently delivering internet to remote areas in Puerto RicoImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Project Loon

Similar projects are also being pursued by Facebook and Google.

But not all the projects which made headlines in recent years ended up being successful. For example, Facebook and Google lost their investments in internet drones, Song said.

The development and impact of the so-called Project Loon — a joint initiative between Google's subsidiary company Alphabet Inc. and Telkom Kenya — is still unknown. It aims to send high-altitude balloons into the stratosphere, where it can also experiment with solar power.

But Song is confident that even if just one of the projects is successful, it would be akin to a quantum leap for internet access in rural areas.

Silicon Valley's investment in Africa's digital infrastructure is not without its problems, Freytag told DW.

If the companies who do their own advertising are on track to rely on their own infrastructure in the future, it would lead to a shift on the continent.

"The architecture will mix together, which can have consequences," she said. "But we still can't necessarily assess the long-term impact."

Blanc shares this view, linking it to China's involvement in Africa. "This fragmentation and this war — which can be observed on a global scale between China and the US — will directly impact Africans," he said.

Nevertheless, he believes that Africa's backlog of infrastructure could present a great opportunity. Africa now has the chance to develop another decentralized internet model — one that isn't monopolized by just a few economic giants.