Submarine Networks EMEA 2024: Supporting Africa’s growing ICT sector through infrastructure development 


A key panel on day one of Submarine Networks EMEA in London delved into how infrastructure can assist the growth of Africa’s ICT sector

The session was moderated by Ed McCormack, Director of Mc Corporate Services, and consisted of:

Rosalind Thomas, Managing Director and CEO at SAEx International Management

Dylan Carver, Global Account Manager at Medusa Submarine Cable System

Mohammed Aliyu, Chief FiberCo Officer at Bayobab

Nikki Popoola, Director of Sales West Africa & DRC at WIOCC Group

Africa is home to 1/6 of the population and is the fastest growing population in the world. That sounds promising, but that does not mean the market is without challenges. 

An obvious big challenge are cable outages currently going on, such as in the  Red Sea or in West Africa. “This a major challenge,” said Nikki Popoola “I don’t recall a time when there have been so many cables down”. 

“But there’s so much opportunity in Africa,” she continued. “More than anything, we need to develop the terrestrial. That’s a big challenge”. 

Africa has a population 1.4 billion people, so there is a huge opportunity for expansion. “If you want to go fast you go alone, but if you want to go far, you go together,” said Mohammed Aliyu. Collaboration is vital for African growth.  

The challenges are also opportunity. “We are operating in a bipolar global economy with geopolitics impacting us. We can’t ignore that,” continued Rosalind. 

Power is a huge challenge in Africa, especially in South Africa, which has an issue with load shedding. Without power, you can’t have any of the advanced technologies such as data centres, so “Africa is paying catch up”. 

Rosalind notes that there’s also a problem with getting skilled people, which must be addressed collaboratively. Skills are a challenge everywhere, but it is more intense in Africa. In South Africa, there is 65% youth employment rate, who simply are not skilled enough to be able to work in a digital economy. In other countries on the continent, due to the problems in country, many of them leave for jobs elsewhere. 

Some answers to this could be visa free travel within Africa or driving pan African initiatives, because there’s less employment issues in Kenya, Nigeria etc. Youth employment is much lower in Kenya for example, 12.5%. In South Africa, there are 330,000 people filled by employees on critical skills visas in South Africa, and 77,000 jobs they cannot fill, but around 14 million unemployed youth. 

Because the industry is a global one, it attracts skills globally. There are not seeing enough people entering the subnets industry, and they go to the likes of meta or google related to the end user applications, not the submarine cables bit!  

Africa has built thousands of kilometres of cable in recent years. But what is different in the business plan for the development of new cables?  

There are now more players in the market with different interests. Collaboration must be seen one the ground, as people are far too protective of what they own, there need to be more of an open access model, the panel argues. In South Africa, there are more than 17 fibre providers duplicating fibre in the same areas, and its impacting on their Return on investments because they are not collaborating. “The idea of sharing is very important”, confirms Rosalind. 

The areas in need of investment 

It has been made clear that some cables will reach the end of their life in the next 10-15 years. The recent outages on the continent are shifting mentalities on how to address the next cable initiatives. 

The current problem with African cables is that they all follow the same routes, Rosalind argues. Last year, there were 9 cable cuts. Climate change will also be a factor in these cuts, because they have all been laid too close to the continent.  

“In the short term, because there have been many more data centres built in Africa. There must be a focus on domiciling content in Africa, so you don’t need to go out of Africa to get this continent,” says Mohammed. 

“We need to be able to connect the hubs in Africa: the three major ones are Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa,” he continues. Therefore, building terrestrial connectivity is equally important.  

Technology has leapfrogged the continent no end. The phone has become the way that we all work, live and play. It becomes your banking, source of information, everything. 

The panel concludes that there is ample opportunity for Africa to be better connected within the next five years. The growth potential in the market is great. Working together has been a key takeaway here – cross collaboration will be the pathway to success. 

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