Digital sovereignty has increasingly turned into a sensitive geopolitical issue that needs careful handling, understanding and navigation for particular states to remain relevant globally.
The past decade has seen Africa embrace digital migration an initiative presented as a catapult for the continent to leap into a modern future.
African states have relaxed their legal framework to allow private investors in telecoms and then the internet.
Ultimately this has given private companies control over the juicy data market. However, analysts consider this control of data by private companies as Africa’s loss of its digital sovereignty.
Rethinking taxation and regulation is the only way to regain control.
According to Amadou Diop, a Senegalese founder of the digital strategy consulting firm, MNS Consulting, “It started off badly.”
Amadou has been working for several months on the subject, draws up an alarming first picture of Africa’s shortcomings in this area.
Submarine cables, terrestrial fiber optic networks, datacenters, all the infrastructures essential to good connectivity on the continent and to the development of a true digital economy belong in whole or in part to the top five pan-African operators: MTN, Orange, Airtel, Vodacom and Etisalat.
“These five players cover 57% of African subscribers and, apart from MTN, none is purely African …”, regrets the telecoms engineer trained at IMT Atlantique and holds an MBA from Essec.
And to continue on future projects of even more powerful actors such as Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite constellation and the multiple initiatives of Facebook across the continent (including the 2Africa submarine cable): “We run the risk of seeing the emergence of transnational players who no longer need the backing of a national regulator to attract customers where they need it.
Africa needs data centres to gain its digital sovereignty
The “race for data” has already started, but is Africa ready to respond to storage and processing needs? 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated every day in the world.
Africa, with its 1.2 billion inhabitants and a mobile penetration rate that has been steadily increasing in recent years, could soon become the new “data Eldorado”.
Indeed, according to Globe Newswire, Africa’s data centre market size is expected to exceed US$3 billion by 2025, due to a strong interest from major global cloud service providers such as AWS, Microsoft or Huawei.
Africa’s population is expected to reach a quarter of the world’s population in less than 30 years.
This translates into the generation of an incalculable amount of data that need to be properly collected, stored, protected, analysed and then turned into actionable information for the benefit of the continent.
As Ange Diagou, from NSIA Technologies, stated in an article about the need for efficient data centers in Africa, the economic sovereignty of the continent is at stake.
Today, Africa only hosts around 1.3% of the world’s data centres, which means less than a hundred, whereas the rest of the cake is largely distributed between USA and Europe (40% and 30% respectively).
To all these facts, which have direct implications for the economic development of the continent, we can add the alarming growth of cybercrime and the expanding influence of data in political and economic decision-making, to confirm what Yannick Yamdjeu has already claimed in this blog, namely that “digital sovereignty is a geopolitical issue”.
Building data centre capacities requires not only infrastructure, but also substantial human resources with targeted skills.
In a region where 41% of the population is under 15, time has come to implement such a policy, that involves directing education towards dynamic sectors such as the digital one.
According to the Internet Society, the Internet contributes to only 1.1% of African countries’ GDP. As stressed by Robert Mullins, Executive Director of First Brick Holdings, “despite the dramatic rise in both terrestrial and mobile connectivity over the past 10 years, broader Digital Transformation in Africa has been largely stymied by a lack of adequate data centre infrastructure”.