Africa’s digital sovereignty threatened by great power rivalry

Africa’s digital sovereignty threatened by great power rivalry

Huawei is active in most African countries. (AFP)

China’s ability to create data centers in Africa is an important element in the emergence of the fourth industrial revolution. Beijing helps African states manage their affairs in the direction of governance, media and communications. This phenomenon can be placed in the context of the struggle around 3G technologies through 5G which challenges Western and European interests.
Currently, most of Africa’s data is stored in Africa. But this fact is changing rapidly. At the start of 2020, Africa had only 112 data centers. The amount of electricity needed to run data centers is enormous. Research shows that the continent needs 1,000 MW spread across 700 data facilities to match capacity to demand. This electrical problem must be further thought out by practitioners.
The stakes are high in Africa, where heads of state and their ministers weigh in on issues of digital sovereignty. About 50% of Africa’s 3G networks and 70% of its 4G networks are operated by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. However, in South Africa, Amazon has moved to Cape Town and Johannesburg in competition with Huawei, which has also started building two data centers in the country.
Huawei is coming under increasing criticism in the US and EU, just as Beijing is upping its game in Africa. The most recent addition from China 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 plays a major role in “creating” national data with a focus on its model, potentially South Africa’s own data center. 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 ends.
Africa’s data centers and cloud business are increasingly attracting foreign powers. According to research, Africa Data Centers, PAIX Data Centers and Etix Everywhere are increasingly recognized players on the continent from their bases in Europe. And the American and Chinese giants of this sector are starting to create a 500 million dollar industry that attracts investment funds.
Huawei is active in most African countries. He was negotiating an 80 million euro ($88 million) contract last year for 800 km of optical fiber and 900 surveillance cameras for the “Smart Burkina” project in Burkina Faso, with money provided by the Chinese bank Exim.
China’s activity is also progressing in fiber optics. In May 2020, China Mobile, along with seven other partners, announced the creation of the 37,000 km “2Africa” ​​cable to connect Africa to the Middle East. The cable is to circle the African continent, with landings in 16 countries, and will support the growth of 5G and broadband access for hundreds of millions of people. This communications arc is an important emerging component of China’s strategy in Africa, as it connects to emerging telecoms, linked to data centers, especially for the Horn of Africa.
However, Google is now challenging China in cable. Google’s Equiano undersea internet cable landed in Togo this month. First announced in 2019, Equiano is Google’s 14th investment in undersea internet cables, but the first dedicated to internet access in Africa. The cable connects Portugal to South Africa and is part of the company’s $1 billion investment in Africa, which includes a $50 million venture capital seed fund. While the world is progressing with 5G, most Togolese still depend 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 purposes.

Dr Theodore Karasik

Google’s announcement came two weeks after a former Huawei subsidiary, HMN Technologies, announced that the company had started building long distance lines on the regional express cable from the Horn of Africa to Senegal’s 720 km, which will create the first high-capacity direct link between Africa and the Cape Verde archipelago. Cape Verde is an important strategic maritime point in the Atlantic Ocean.
Overall, it seems that competition for data centers in Africa is based on the location of optical cables. The emerging cloud security architecture is one of a 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 Senior Advisor to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC Twitter: @tkarasik

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