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Can Africa achieve ‘digital sovereignty’ in an era of Big Tech?

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Can Africa achieve ‘digital sovereignty’ in an era of Big Tech?

Debates around Africa’s digital sovereignty have flourished in recent years. Numerous African scholars have passionately written about the need to protect African countries from being “overly-dependent” on foreign-owned companies, mostly US and Chinese, to build their internet infrastructures.

In 2021 a cohort of universities invited prominent African fellows from 14 countries across the continent to reflect upon the theme “towards an African narrative on digital sovereignty”. One of the main takeaways was that “African leaders need to rethink the models for financing digital infrastructure.” But what is wrong with the models? And does it matter? 

Tech titans in Africa: who controls the internet?

“Currently, the provision of digital infrastructure in Africa is primarily controlled by foreign entities,” says Adio-Adet Dinika, a Zimbabwe-born, Germany-based, political scientist. 

“Notably, tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple – collectively referred to as GAFAM – along with several Chinese firms like Huawei and ZTE, are significantly involved.”

In 2021, Google announced a plan to invest $1bn over the next five years to support Africa’s digital transformation. CEO Sundar Pichai said that the money will cover a range of initiatives, “from improving connectivity to investing in startups”.

One of the company’s key projects is the Equiano cable – a subsea fibre-optic cable spanning 15,000 km from Portugal to South Africa, with two strategic landing points in Nigeria and Namibia. The cable is supposed to be fully operational this year and bring a number of socio-economic benefits to partner countries. 

Subsea cables are the backbone of the internet: they deliver bytes of information from one place to another and keep the world connected. Africa has about 21 subsea cables surrounding its coasts, mostly supplied by Europe-based Alcatel and Chinese company HMN Technology and owned by consortiums of private telecom companies.

According to an impact assessment study commissioned by Google, the Equiano cable will increase connectivity more than five-fold in Nigeria, and two-fold in South Africa and Namibia. In addition, the study projects the creation of 1.6 million jobs between 2022 and 2025 in Nigeria, 180,000 in South Africa and 21,000 in Namibia.

Meta, Facebook’s parent company, will also launch its subsea cable, 2Africa, in 2024, encompassing even more coastal states. “The largest subsea fibre-optic cable system ever,” as Meta calls it, will circle the continent and connect 16 African countries, for an estimated cost of between $500m and $1bn. 

The social media giant, which also owns WhatsApp, Instagram, and now Threads, claims that 2Africa will “generate a $26.4bn to $36.9bn economic impact (at PPP) for Africa within 2 to 3 years of starting operations in 2023/4,” equivalent to the GDP of Senegal in 2022. 

Elon Musk is also engaged in a similar quest. Last June, Sierra Leone became the fifth African country to grant a licence to Starlink, the satellite broadband service launched by California-based SpaceX, the spacecraft company founded by the tycoon. 

The country has joined Nigeria, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Mauritius as African nations connected to the service. According to the map displayed on Starlink’s website, an additional 19 African countries are scheduled for launch in 2023 and 2024.

Chinese firms are also becoming increasingly involved in building digital infrastructures in Africa. According to a paper released by the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, “Huawei and Chinese phone maker ZTE have built nearly 80% of Africa’s third-generation (3G) network infrastructure, while Huawei has built 70% of all fourth-generation (4G) networks and is competing to build all the future 5G networks in Africa.”

User gold rush 

To understand what Big Tech companies are seeking with their investment on the continent, some advise stepping away from PR portrayals of internet access as a philanthropic concern. 

Patrick Christian, a senior research manager at US-based telecom research firm TeleGeography, says a major end goal for Meta and Google is increasing their user bases.

“The way they keep their investors happy is by constantly increasing the number of users, so they’re really just trying to add additional users to their services,” he says. 

As of 2022, Facebook had approximately 244m users in Africa, according to the data gathering platform Statista. 

As the continent is expected to be home to at least 25% of the world’s population by 2050, and the company is progressively losing active users in Europe and America, Africa represents a considerable growth opportunity. 

But compared to other markets, connectivity on the continent remains slow, unreliable, and expensive: the average price for 1GB of mobile data in Sub-Saharan Africa is $4.47, compared to a world average of $3. 

Meta and Google understand that they need to close the infrastructure gap if they want to increase users on the continent. 

In 2018, the African Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine cable, which was launched in 2012 and connects 16 African countries to Europe, was severed, resulting in Mauritania being left offline for two days. According to Christian, this event provided momentum for the Silicon Valley giants to step in the business. 

“They see the unreliability and scarcity of subsea cables in Africa as a problem,” he says. 

“It just makes economic sense for them to build their own cables rather than rely on a third party. But if there were other good submarine cables out there, if there were enough, if they were at the right price, they would just go with that,” he says. 

Win-win still possible

While “they are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts,” says Patrick Christian, he believes that it could still be a win-win situation. Meta and Google want more users, and African countries want private investment in technology to meet developmental goals. 

“What I see, at least in the short term, it’s just making the internet work better. Better connectivity, more local content and lower prices is what they are bringing to the game,” he says. “It is better for the consumer, and better for the consumer means better for Google and Meta.”

Christian argues that Google and Meta’s sub-sea cables will also foster the creation of data centres on the continent, ultimately reinforcing countries’ digital sovereignty. In fact, a major concern for sovereignty is that sensitive data is stored outside the continent, in data centres located in the US, Europe, or China, and that African countries have no hold on it. 

In 2021, about 80% of health data platforms in Nigeria were hosted in the cloud, which is based outside the territory of Nigeria, according to a paper written by Benjamin Akinmoyeje, an informatics research student at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. 

Along with the launch of the Equiano sub-sea cable, Google announced the launch of a “cloud region” in South Africa, its first in the continent. Google Cloud regions allow users to deploy “cloud resources” – hosted on Google’s server computers – from specific geographic locations. A physical Google data centre near Cape Town is reported to be due for completion at the end of 2023.

“You’ll see them moving up to Nigeria and Kenya within probably the next three years,” says Christian. “And this is just moving the content closer to the end users, making user performance and services better.”

Big Tech corporations are also the only organisations that possess the capital to invest in expensive infrastructure projects. In 2021 Liquid Intelligent Technologies, owned by telecoms giant Strive Masiyiwa’s Cassava Technologies, partnered with Meta to build a 2000 km long fibre cable across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

It aims to create a digital corridor from the Atlantic Ocean through the Congo Rainforest to East Africa and onto the Indian Ocean, extending the reach of Meta’s 2Africa cable, and giving the company access to landlocked countries.

Digital hegemony or development catalyst? 

Some critics argue that an over-reliance on a few, foreign-owned, tech companies to build internet infrastructures in Africa might result in an internet that does not reflect countries’ cultural norms. 

“It is paramount to understand the potential drawbacks of over-reliance,” says Dinika.

“It can result in technologies that don’t align with local cultures, contexts, or values. Echoing what works in Silicon Valley may not necessarily thrive in African cities like Lagos, Harare, Kigali or Nairobi,” he says. 

In 2017, a study published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers highlighted signs of a “digital hegemony” on the internet, “whereby producers in a few countries get to define what is read by others”. 

The study showed that only eight countries in Africa have a majority of content that is locally produced, while the others rely on content from the United States and France. 

The fear, for researchers, was that new users entering the web, notably through Meta or Google-provided networks, will get a version of the web skewed towards Western cultural and ideological values. Similar worries have been expressed concerning the recent surge in AI as datasets used to evaluate the performance of machine-learning models, such as ChatGPT, are largely coming from the United-States. 

With the company now investing in network infrastructures, such as sub-sea cables, “it creates an added layer of control and influence,” says Toussaint Nothias, a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Lab. 

“We can envision a situation in ten years where their power resembles a form of vertically-integrated monopoly. They could then prioritise traffic to their service through these infrastructures; it would make it cheaper to access Meta products and more expensive to access non-Meta products, further entrenching dependence on their products,” he says.

“If Meta was a non-profit or a co-operative, perhaps we would have less reasons to worry. But given its profit motive and the track record of the company, there are good reasons to be wary.”

Indian lessons in digital independence

One country, however, has pursued a different model that could appeal to African regulators. In 2016, India banned Facebook’s Free Basics service, a tool launched a few years back which provided mobile users with access to a text-only version of Facebook and other partnered websites, free of data charge.

Indian regulators decried the initiative as a violation of net neutrality; that is, of the principle that internet service providers should treat all internet traffic equally. By giving limited access to the internet content, they considered, Free Basics would limit users to a “walled-garden” internet experience.

In Africa, however, Free Basics expanded without much public scrutiny. Indeed, Indian telecom giant Airtel Africa – which is majority owned by the Indian multinational company Bharti Airtel – partnered with Facebook in 2015 to offer Free Basics in 17 countries in Africa. 

In Nigeria, where Airtel Africa is the second-largest mobile provider, Free Basics started offering free access to 80 pre-selected websites to the 46% of Nigerians who owned a mobile phone at the time.

It would be wrong to state that Facebook and Google’s involvement in Africa has not faced any resistance. In India, however, this resistance came from powerful billionaires – such as Nandan Nilekani, who operates in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector – who saw Facebook’s presence as a threat to their businesses.

“Interestingly, [Nandan Nilekani] had a very sophisticated geopolitical critique, like India doesn’t want to be dependent upon the US companies, but also obvious self-interests and an alternative company to promote,” says Brett Scott, an economic anthropologist.

“Sometimes, you actually need some alternative billionaire industrialist who has an alternative platform to try and build some resistance,” he says.

The future role of tech insiders 

While ICT billionaires in Africa might not have stood up against Meta and Google’s increasing presence yet, a number of advocates for Africa’s digital sovereignty are connected to the industry. 

Lacina Koné, the CEO of Smart Africa, an intergovernmental organisation which works towards enhancing access to broadband and ICT, told African Business at a tech conference in Morocco last June that “Africa’s digital sovereignty” was the core of its mission. 

Lanre Kolade, the CEO of CSquared, a company which builds metropolitan fibre optic networks in large African cities, reportedly said in a conference in Togo last month that his biggest fear was that “Africa will be digitally colonised.” 

CSquared started as a project within Google in 2011, before entering into a joint venture with Mitsui & Co (Japan), Convergence Partners (South Africa) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Smart Africa, for its part, holds Google as platinum members, and Meta and Microsoft as gold members, alongside a number of other foreign tech companies. 

As both Meta and Google are deeply involved in training a number of people on the continent, either through their regional offices or scholarship programs, the influence of Big Tech-connected Africans is likely to prove crucial: the debate on digital sovereignty will be carried out by people who have seen the machine from the inside and want to push for change. 

“African countries are not going to have full digital sovereignty,” says Scott. “But there exist ways to localise traffic and data, and carve out sort of small spaces of sovereignty within that, or at least creating alternatives.” he says.

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