Can Africa’s internet infrastructure cope with the future?

  • Africa has witnessed significant growth in digital connectivity over the past decade. However, challenges such as weak infrastructure, monopolies in internet access, and high import taxes on devices persist.
  • Investments in Africa’s digital infrastructure, including fibre optic networks, broadband connectivity, and data centres, are crucial to bridging the digital divide and unlocking the continent’s economic potential.
  • Digital transformation holds the key to accelerating economic development in Africa, but it must be preceded by the establishment of a secure and stable digital infrastructure.

Over the past decade, there has been a significant transformation in the digital landscape of African countries. By 2024, the active users across Africa are expected to reach approximately 730 million, and this number is projected to continue rising. If the forecasts remain on the same trajectory, it could surpass 1.1 billion by 2029.

Also read: CMC Networks satellites respond to African subsea cable damage

Also read: African internet outage was caused by subsea cable break

The internet penetration rate in Africa is far below the global average

Due to the economic viability of mobile connectivity, the need for infrastructure required for fixed-line internet connections has been eliminated, benefiting all sectors of society and the economy on the African continent. As more regions in Africa become connected, opportunities based on networks and applications are increasing, particularly important for a continent where nearly half of the population lacks bank accounts.

However, despite the increasing number of users, the internet penetration rate in Africa was only 43% in 2021, below the global average of 66%. Furthermore, there are significant disparities in internet penetration rates between different African countries and regions.

Also read: What is AFRINIC? The role and challenges of the African Regional Internet Registry

There are three major problems existing in the development of the internet in Africa

The development of the internet in Africa faces three major problems: Firstly, weak internet infrastructure, as most servers are not in Africa but mainly in the USA, leading to high internet costs and reliance on undersea cables through Europe for access. Another issue is the management of local broadband. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the postal company holds exclusive rights to fibre optics but provides poor service, leading to the use of more expensive satellite connections in the entire city of Kinshasa. In Cameroon, resale of internet connection services has become the main economic pillar of the national telecommunications company (CAMTEL), with a monthly rent of $500 for 1 gigabit bandwidth (allowing 12 users to access high-speed internet), while Ivory Coast requires only $100. Chad cannot directly access undersea cables, so the Cameroonian national telecommunications company proposed a monthly rent standard of $800 per gigabit bandwidth.

Secondly, the issue of monopoly. In Africa, internet access providers are mainly telecommunications operators who, while in fierce competition, sometimes form alliances to prevent other specialised operators from emerging and providing broadband and ultra-broadband services to the middle class and businesses. As a result, there is currently only one pan-African internet access provider, namely SMILE company. Additionally, Swiss company YooMee has started operating in Cameroon and Ivory Coast, developing a 4G network in Abidjan with speeds of up to 5 megabits per second and offering 8 gigabytes of data for about 22 euros.

Thirdly, import taxes. Many African countries levy high import taxes on devices such as smartphones, despite the rapid development of terminal equipment, with rates reaching 39% in Ivory Coast and about 30% in Mali and Senegal. To implement national broadband development strategies, Nigeria plans to break down the above barriers, a move that is welcomed but still insufficient to propel Africa into the “digital age.”

Also read: ICANN’s Africa DNS report barely mentions the AFRINIC problem

Africa needs digital solutions more than ever to face the future

Currently, Africa needs digital solutions more than ever before to improve the efficiency of the entire society. According to World Bank estimates, a 10% increase in mobile internet penetration could potentially increase each African country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2.5%. Despite the positive impact of increasing internet access and related infrastructure on African society and industry ecosystems, the continent still lags far behind other regions of the world in areas such as fibre optic networks, broadband connectivity, and data centre construction, highlighting a significant “digital divide” across Africa.

As of now, less than one-third of Africa’s population has access to broadband services, and 21 out of the world’s 25 worst broadband access countries are in Africa, with still three hundred million Africans residing more than 50 kilometres away from fibre optic cables or broadband connections; Africa’s internet penetration rate is only 36%, significantly lower than the global average of 62.5%. Nonetheless, Africa still has approximately 473 million internet users, with a potential additional 300 million netizens expected to join by 2025.

To reap the benefits of digital transformation, abundant, low-cost connectivity is essential as broadband drives productivity, innovation, and growth. One of the specific objectives of Africa’s Digital Transformation Strategy is to create a harmonised environment necessary to guarantee investment and financing to close the digital infrastructure gap and achieve accessible, affordable, and secure broadband, across demography, gender, and geography.

Dr. Amani Abou-Zeid, African Union Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy

The construction of digital infrastructure is at the core

The construction of digital infrastructure is at the core of Africa’s digital transformation, aiming to provide digital connectivity to everyone and ensure universal digital inclusion. It is evident that the African continent holds immense potential for digital growth, but the existence of the “digital divide” severely hinders the expansion of the African digital market and the smooth implementation of available services, necessitating significant investment in African digital infrastructure and accessibility.

According to World Bank estimates, achieving universal and high-quality internet access across Africa may require at least $100 billion in investment, with 80% allocated to core infrastructure construction to establish and maintain broadband networks, including the construction of at least 250,000 4G base stations and at least 250,000 kilometres of fibre optic cables, to upgrade Africa from 2G and 3G networks to 4G and 5G networks, which in turn may significantly increase the demand for data centres.

It is due to the gradual manifestation of market potential and strong investment incentives that internet access in Sub-Saharan Africa is growing at the fastest pace in the world. Dr. Amani Abou-Zeid stated, “To reap the benefits of digital transformation, abundant, low-cost connectivity is essential as broadband drives productivity, innovation, and growth. One of the specific objectives of Africa’s Digital Transformation Strategy is to create a harmonised environment necessary to guarantee investment and financing to close the digital infrastructure gap and achieve accessible, affordable, and secure broadband, across demography, gender, and geography.”

This is highlighted by:

Firstly, the rapid expansion of mobile network coverage. With the upgrade from 2G networks to 4G and even 5G networks, by 2025, the mobile phone penetration rate in Africa will reach 50%, the connectivity rate of 4G mobile networks will reach 28%, and 5G connections may approach 30 million users.

Although these penetration indicators are still lower than the global average, due to enhanced network connectivity and expanded network capacity, the average download speed for African mobile internet users will double, and the average available mobile data may increase by over four times, reaching 7GB per user per month, while data costs will be halved.

In this regard, the realisation of universal access to the internet and the enjoyment of the universal benefits of digital development for everyone is gradually becoming a reality. While mobile devices may remain the primary means of accessing the internet for Africans in the future due to geographical constraints, providing better access to 4G and 5G networks for these devices will undoubtedly bring innovative digital products and services to Africa.

Secondly, there is unprecedented competition in the laying of land and submarine cables. Currently, there are approximately 21 submarine cables around the African coast, but interconnectivity of African networks remains limited and fragile. In 2021, Google announced a $1 billion investment over the next five years to build the Equiano cable, a 15,000-kilometre-long submarine fibre optic cable from Portugal to South Africa, with two strategic landing points in Nigeria and Namibia. It is expected that after completion, Nigeria’s network connectivity will increase by over five times, while that of South Africa and Namibia will double, creating 1.6 million jobs in Nigeria, 180,000 jobs in South Africa, and 21,000 jobs in Namibia.

Additionally, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, is set to launch the “2Africa” high-speed submarine cable system, stretching 23,000 miles and connecting 16 African countries with 21 landing points around the continent by 2024. The goal is to double the internet capacity of the African continent and generate $26.4 billion to $36.9 billion in economic growth for Africa within two to three years. However, fibre optic networks have not fully penetrated the African continent, especially in landlocked countries like the Central African Republic, Eritrea, and South Sudan, which still lack fibre optic connections to submarine cables surrounding the continent. The household penetration rate of fibre broadband services in Sub-Saharan Africa is still below 2%, and network connectivity across the African continent remains slow, unreliable, and expensive.

Pop quiz

What are the problems existing in the development of the internet in Africa?

A. weak internet infrastructure

B. the issue of monopoly

C. unprecedented competition in the laying of land and submarine cables

D. All of the above

Thirdly, data centre construction is becoming a hot spot for capital pursuit. Africa is considered the next frontier of the global data center industry, with the African data center market expected to grow by $3 billion by 2025. According to the International Telecommunication Union, Africa currently needs to build at least 700 data centres with a capacity of 1,000 megawatts each to meet the current connectivity needs of the digital economy.

With the fastest-growing and youngest population in the world, Africa’s demand for data is urgent and massive, yet currently, African data centre capacity accounts for only 1% of the global total and is extremely unevenly distributed. According to a survey by the African Data Centres Association, about two-thirds of the capacity is located in South Africa, with 39 local African companies including Vodacom/Safaricom, MTN, Rack Centre, ADC, and Teraco collectively owning over 95% of Africa’s data centre capacity.

To achieve a similar level of connectivity density in other regions of the African continent as in South Africa, African governments need to extensively raise funds to expand data centre capacity and lay fibre optic cables across Africa. In this context, hyperscale data centres will proliferate in coastal countries with cable branches, as hyperscale companies require their own capacity and will attract other enterprises and clients to host data.

This, in turn, will create opportunities for fibre deployment, expanding connectivity and capacity to other inland countries. With the construction of more data centres, there will be a chain reaction in the overall digital infrastructure of the African continent, driving the introduction of more fibre optic cables, improvement in power supply, and innovation in service models such as SaaS, PaaS, and NaaS.

Major difficulties exists in the IT infrastructure construction

The digital infrastructure coverage, access, and quality in the region still lag behind. By the end of 2021, while 84% of people in SSA had access to 3G service and 63% to 4G mobile coverage, only 22% were using mobile internet services. The gap between coverage and usage is also significant for broadband, with 61% of people in sub-Saharan Africa within broadband range but not utilising it.

The lack of investment in telecommunications infrastructure is a major challenge. The World Bank estimates that achieving universal and high-quality internet access in Africa requires a substantial $100 billion investment. Specifically, 80% of this amount should be allocated to core infrastructure development, including deploying 250,000 new 4G base stations, laying at least 250,000 kilometres of fibre optic cables, and transitioning to 5G technology. These investments will pave the way for a significant increase in demand for data centres.

Many areas, especially rural and remote regions, lack the basic infrastructure necessary for internet connectivity. In several countries, social instability or government policies and regulations can hinder infrastructure development, internet access, and service quality. Additionally, many people cannot afford the devices needed to access available services or lack the necessary computer skills. In 2022, internet use in the least developed country (LDC) in the Americas stood at 53%, while in the 12 LDCs in APAC, it was 43%. However, in the 33 LDCs in Africa, the average was only 28%.

Second, the energy crisis presents another significant obstacle. In many parts of Africa, especially rural and remote areas, a shortage of reliable electricity hampers the establishment and maintenance of essential communication infrastructure. Without a stable and accessible power source, it becomes challenging to fuel and sustain the necessary infrastructure for connectivity.

AFRINIC problems: Africa’s Regional Internet Registry in turmoil

Third, Africa’s internet registry has had problem after problem in recent years, and currently is running without a CEO or board. AFRINIC, The African Network Information Centre is the Regional Internet Registry of the African continent. Its main function is to govern the internet number resource space for Africa and provide them with a stable and safe internet that allows growth to their business.

AFRINIC is responsible for the allocation and management of Internet numbers (IPv4, IPv6 & ASNs) resources according to their community backed policy. AFRINIC’s provides professional and efficient distribution of these resources to everyone in the African region. AFRINIC also aims to do two things for the African continent: support Internet technology usage and development and strengthen internet self-governance.

However, it has no board, no CEO, has sometimes been close to not being able to pay its staff, could fail, and other regional internet registries have therefore expressed interest in funding its ongoing activities, according to John Curran, president and CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN).

Legal actions focusing on corruption and malicious staff members have prevented AFRINIC from constituting a board and appointing a new leader. As a result, other Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) have offered financial support to ensure that AFRINIC can pay its staff. The current issues stem from litigation launched by an entity called Cloud Innovation Limited that was assigned several million IP addresses by the registry, but then illegally tried to retrieve them.

Africa needs better IT infrastructure to cope with potential for digital growth

Digital transformation is key to accelerating economic development in Africa, but first, it requires the construction of secure and stable digital infrastructure. Considering Africa’s youthful population structure and rapidly advancing urbanisation process, there is immense potential for digital growth in Africa, but there is a risk of economic isolation and stagnation if the digital divide is not bridged. In this regard, investing in Africa’s digital infrastructure should focus on addressing the accessibility and affordability of digital access.

Africa’s internet infrastructure has made significant progress in recent years, with increasing mobile network coverage, competition in submarine cable laying, and the emergence of data centres as key components.

However, the continent still faces challenges such as weak infrastructure, monopolistic practices among telecommunications operators, high import taxes on devices, and unequal distribution of data centre capacity. Addressing these challenges requires substantial investment, regulatory reforms to foster competition, affordability initiatives, and efforts to ensure equitable access to digital services.

Despite these hurdles, Africa’s youthful population and advancing urbanisation process offer immense potential for digital growth, emphasising the importance of bridging the digital divide through inclusive and sustainable development of internet infrastructure.

The correct answer is D.


Chloe Chen

Chloe Chen is a junior writer at BTW Media. She graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and had various working experiences in the finance and fintech industry. Send tips to

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *