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‘2AFRICA’: The High-Speed Future of Africa?

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Jesse Bakare


On the 13th of May 2020, eight parties including China Mobile International (CMI), Facebook and Vodafone announced a partnership to build 2Africa – a continental subsea connectivity project.[1] Labelled the ‘most comprehensive subsea cable to serve the African Continent and Middle East region’, the 37,000km long development will interconnect 16 African countries with 2 Middle Eastern and 5 European nations.[2]


Boasting an initial transmission capacity of 180 terabits per second (enough to download the entire Netflix library in under one second), the audacious project aims to go live by 2023/2024. With such speeds, the project would provide the fastest internet speeds in the world, trumping the previous record of 178 terabits per second as set by British and Japanese engineers. [3]


photo by Jens Kohler - Ullstein Bild/Getty Images


Project aim

With a staggering 1.34 billion people, Africa currently accounts for 17.2% of the world population.[4] However, only 47.1% of Africa’s population have access to the internet.[5] This is a major contrast with the internet penetration rates of 90.3% and 87.2% for North America and Europe respectively.[6] Moreover, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050 two in every five children will be born in Africa, with Urban populations predicted to triple.[7]

As such, Africa offers fertile ground for the expansion of global telecommunications companies. This is especially true when considering that Africa has shown the largest global growth in internet usage, with a 13,898% increase between 2000 and 2020.[8] Thus, alongside the pre-existing upwards trend in internet exposure, Africa represents a huge opportunity for service and tech industries to develop and integrate their services for a large mass of potential users.

Africa’s newfound attention

While 2Africa is one of the grandest projects in Africa’s history, it follows the growing trend of technology and telecommunications companies expanding to Africa in the past decade. On the 18th of September, Facebook announced that they were to open their second Africa office in Nigeria; South Africa leading the charge with the first office in 2015.[9] The move will also see Facebook introduce engineers to the continent for the first time. Furthermore, Microsoft Corp has also announced plans to invest $100 million to open multiple Africa technology development centre sites over the next 5 years.[10] Evidently, Africa is becoming an investment hub for investors and developers, however, there are also strong benefits for the African people.


Benefits


We know that economies flourish when there is a widely accessible internet for businesses. 2Africa is a key pillar supporting this tremendous internet expansion as part of Africa’s surging digital economy (Najam Ahmad, Vice President, Network Infrastructure at Facebook).[11]


In enhancing connectivity between Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, 2Africa will enable new routes of communication from coast to coast. The expanded capacity will facilitate a robust online eco-system through enabling improved accessibility for people, businesses, and institutions. As researchers Manyika and Roxburgh illustrate, economies thrive where there is widely accessible internet for businesses.[12] As such, 2Africa has the potential to become an important pillar in supporting the massive expansion of Africa’s digital economy.


Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of connectivity, with billions of people globally relying on the internet for work, leisure and education.


The 2Africa project may have a particularly positive impact on the development of E-agriculture within Africa. Currently, more than 60% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa are smallholder farmers, with about 23% of the regions GDP coming from agriculture.[13] By increasing access to online finance or recent technologies to scale businesses, 2Africa could represent a massive source of prosperity for the continent. The facilitation of E-agriculture would help farmers to deliver on their potential and develop more effective ways to farm and trade.


A silver bullet?

Despite the 2Africa project’s advantages, there are some serious concerns regarding the involvement of Facebook and China.

In Myanmar, Facebook has been used to incite genocide, with posts from the Myanmar military used to spread hatred and misinformation.[14] This demonstrates the dangerous capacity for governments to use social networking against their domestic population. Facebook’s inability to register the misinformation is particularly concerning when juxtaposed with the nature of 2Africa’s goals – to bring connectivity to an unreached market. This is a substantial risk to those who are not experienced with the internet and are therefore more vulnerable to misinformation and targeting through social networking sites.


Additionally, the CMI is a subsidiary of a larger company owned by the Chinese government. As a result, CMI will certainly look to advance the political interests of the government in Beijing. The involvement of China in such a large economic development presents considerable concerns for the future of Africa’s development. Over the past two decades, China has become the biggest bilateral lender to Africa, with almost $150 billion transferred to governments and state-owned companies in advancing their interests within the region.[15] This reflects China’s expansionist aim of maintaining an economic hold within Africa, inter alia, through financing projects and other developments. [16]


Although there are benefits to China being Africa’s largest trading partner, only 9% of loans between 2000 and 2017 feature ‘low’ or zero interest.[17] Thus, Africa’s large reliance on China may result in a slower process of development, with countries prioritising money to pay back Chinese loans. This can lead to a debt-trap where countries may default on their loans and must ask for aid from the International Monetary Fund – further stunting growth. As 2Africa will likely become a large driver in economic growth, China’s involvement may cause detriment for countries consumed by the Chinese debt-trap diplomacy.


Final words


2Africa will give local businesses and consumers a better online experience while more connectivity between Africa, Europe and the Middle East will help to build a wider, more inclusive digital society across the globe. (Vinod Kumar, CEO Vodafone Business)[18]


Regardless of concerns, the 2Africa subsea project is underway and primed for completion in the next few years. While there is concern surrounding Facebook’s regulation (or lack of) and China’s increasing hold on the continent, the project represents a force for positive change through significantly changing Africa’s links to profitable markets like Europe and the Middle East. Furthermore, the facilitation of Africa’s growing digital economy which is influencing developments in Africa’s major sectors like agriculture is noteworthy. Nonetheless, there must be consistent checks and balances to reduce the likelihood of technology companies and foreign governments exploiting their newly found users.



 

Sources

  1. N Ahmad, K Salvadori, ‘Building a transformative subsea cable to better connect Africa’ (Facebook Engineering, 13 May 2020) < https://engineering.fb.com/2020/05/13/connectivity/2africa/> accessed 1 December 2020.

  2. 2AFRICA, ‘INTRODUCING 2AFRICA’ (14 May 2020) <https://www.2africacable.com/about> accessed 30 November 2020.

  3. Michael Irving, ‘Internet speed record shattered at 178 terabits per second’ (NEW ATLAS, 20 August 2020) <https://newatlas.com/telecommunications/internet-speed-record178-terabits-per-second/> accessed 20 November 2020.

  4. Internet World Stats, ‘The Internet Big Picture’ (20 October 2020) <https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm> accessed 1/12/2020.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Bandar Hajjar, ‘The children’s continent: keeping up with Africa's growth’ (World Economic Forum, 13 Jan 2020) < https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/the-children-s-continent/> accessed 20 November 2020.

  8. Internet world stats (n 5).

  9. Facebook, ‘Opening an Office in Lagos, Nigeria’ (18 September 2020) < https://about.fb.com/news/2020/09/opening-an-office-in-lagos-nigeria/> accessed 1 December 2020.

  10. Duncan Miriri, ‘Microsoft to spend $100 million on Kenya, Nigeria tech development hub’ (Reuters, 14 May 2019) < https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-africa-microsoft/microsoft-to-spend-100-million-on-kenya-nigeria-tech-development-hub-idUKKCN1SK1BV> accessed 29 November 2020.

  11. 2AFRICA (n 2).

  12. James Manyika, Charles Roxburgh, ‘The great transformer: The impact of the Internet on economic growth and prosperity’ (McKinsey & Company, 1 October 2011) < https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/technology-media-and-telecommunications/our-insights/the-great-transformer#> accessed 2 December 2020.

  13. Lutz Goedde et al, ‘Winning in Africa’s agricultural market’ (McKinsey & Company, 15 February 2019) < https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/agriculture/our-insights/winning-in-africas-agricultural-market> accessed 2 December 2020.

  14. Paul Mozar, A Genocide Incited on Facebook, With Posts From Myanmar’s Military (The New York Times, 15 October 2018) < https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/technology/myanmar-facebook-genocide.html> accessed 25 November 2020.

  15. Jonathan Wheatley, Joseph Cotterill, African debt to China: ‘A major drain on the poorest countries’ (Financial Times, 26 October 2020) < https://www.ft.com/content/bd73a115-1988-43aa-8b2b-40a449da1235> accessed 27 November 2020.

  16. Jesse Bakare, ‘The rise of a Cryptocurrency city’ (Durham Pro Bono, 12 March 2020) <https://www.durhamprobonoblog.co.uk/post/the-growth-of-a-cryptocurrency-city> accessed 3 December 2020.

  17. Wheatley (n 15).

  18. 2AFRICA (n 2).




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