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Connecting Africa: The Infrastructure Question with Hanif Lalani

There is no denying that digital technology has been evolving at an exponential rate over the past two decades. Dan Schulman, PayPal’s president and chief executive officer, may have put it best when he described the transformation that has occurred globally in such a short period of time as having gone “from the Flintstones to the Jetsons.” 

The advancement of technology has given way to a digital economy, meaning that internet connectivity can no longer be seen as a luxury. As markets increasingly move operations to online channels, access to broadband (high-speed) internet is now a necessity to participate and operate in the modern world. 

From smartphones to social media, these advancements have only been possible because of the internet, and today less than three decades after it first appeared on the scene over half of the planet’s population is now online. However, those numbers are disproportionately skewed toward the developed world. Over 60 percent of Africans are still disconnected from the internet and the connectivity that is available is unevenly spread across the continent. The connections that are available are often expensive and unreliable. 

High-speed and reliable internet access has the ability to increase employment through the creation of new jobs, expand access to healthcare, provide digital financial tools that improve access to financial services, and spur e-commerce and digital entrepreneurship. The United Nations named building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization and fostering innovation as one of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that provide a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet,” and improving the African continent’s internet capabilities is certainly a vital aspect in that regard. 

There are many ways in which people across the globe are working to aid in getting Africa connected. Hanif Lalani, a British business executive with extensive experience within the IT and telecoms industry, is working on a number of high-speed internet initiatives focused on the emerging world. 

Africa needs access to affordable data for all, we all have the capability but not the opportunity. 

One aspect of the problem has been the continent’s lack of a developed internet infrastructure. Telephone companies had laid copper wire networks across most western countries throughout the 20th century that initially provided widespread connectivity, and by the 1990’s when the internet began gaining in popularity the coaxial cables already put in place by cable television providers allowed for even faster speeds through broadband connections.

However, low landline penetration in Africa meant that as the internet expanded in scale and importance the region lacked the network of copper wire cables to support its growth. By the early 2000’s when the internet had already begun transforming industries (Amazon Prime launched in 2005) only three out of every 100 people in Africa had a landline connection that could facilitate connecting to it. 

By 2008 when much of the West had switched to the faster and more efficient broadband internet, only three fiber-optic submarine cables connected the entire continent of Africa to the global internet and two of those landed in North Africa. The entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa was therefore dependent on a single, older-generation submarine cable if they wanted to get online, months-long internet blackouts were common as a result of boats frequently colliding with the cable and disrupting the connection. 


Connectivity in Africa has improved dramatically over the past decade thanks in part to people like Mr. Lalani and others within the private sector who encourage governments and operators and the private sector to increase investment to make data affordable to the masses. Up until 2009 East Africa was the last major region on Earth without broadband internet access, but in the summer of that year after hundreds of millions of dollars of investment the region got its own submarine cables allowing for greater speeds at lower prices.  


East Africa needs an open market where the price of connecting to the internet is cheaper than in the west, this will dramatically increase the take up of data.


While connectivity in Africa has improved dramatically over the past decade thanks in part to people like Mr. Hanif Lalani and others within the private sector working to make a difference, today only 22 percent of the population has reliable and consistent access to the internet. 37 out of 38 African countries that have a shoreline also have at least one submarine cable landing today, but the 16 countries that are landlocked are still forced to rely on wireless substitutes such as satellites which are more costly and offer far lesser speeds. As previously seen when the entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa had a single submarine cable, those countries that only have one or two today are subject to the prolonged outages as a result of damage to it. 


The sheer scale of getting Africa connected presents a significant humanitarian challenge, requiring innovative solutions and certainly a large amount of investment. Recently, the private sector has stepped up to the plate as companies––either alone or partnering with other governmental and corporate bodies––have worked to implement the infrastructural advances needed to connect Africa to fast and reliable internet. 


Google’s project Equino is a private subsea cable that will run from Portugal to South Africa with branches along the way that can also connect to the countries along Africa’s western coast, and Meta has partnered with African and global telecommunication operators to build 2Africa, a subsea cable that will lie along Africa’s east and west coasts. 


East Africa is seeing huge private investments in fibre rollout and making it much cheaper for operators who in turn can pass this benefit to the consumer. The private sector continues to invest in fibre  and data centre infrastructure. 


One question that for the moment remains unsolved is how to connect the 100 million Africans living in rural areas. Due to the low population density as a result of Africa’s size, fiber cables or cell phone towers are not efficient solutions to ensuring the entire continent is connected, meaning that those working on the problem must think outside the box for a tailored solution. Google has used helium-filled balloons and Meta has tried drones and satellites, but a singular solution has not been found as of yet. 


While Africa’s mobile market has been among the fastest-growing out of any region within the last five years, users across the continent pay, on average, the highest prices for mobile data relative to monthly income in the world, meaning this is not a viable option in the long run when it comes to consistent access, and in areas that are connected via cables the data packages are often unaffordable. Additionally, the high rates of digital illiteracy across the continent mean that even those who are able to connect to a speedy internet with reliability may not be able to make the most of it. 


The internet has the ability to provide innumerous opportunities for Africans across the continent. Through internet initiatives bringing connectivity and economic prospects the quality of life for millions of people can be improved. Internet literacy and connectivity can help Africans create businesses and scale them, while access to the internet for established companies can create new roles specific to digital technology. Through collaborations between governments, organizations and the private sector the infrastructure needed to get Africa connected can bring about a world that is truly fully connected 

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