Africa: Paving the Way – Towards a Fully Connected Africa

Duse, a remote town in Northeast Kenya with a population of around 3,000 people, had no connectivity until 2017, when RuralStar, a solution providing remote broadband coverage, was launched and brought transformational impact.

The nurse working at the local dispensary can now place orders online whenever medicine runs low; otherwise, she would travel 20 kilometers to the nearest phone booth and make a call. Villagers can report cattle rustling immediately to the local authority instead of running from door to door for help. Yusuf Huka, a young man who failed to secure a place in public universities, started to receive online ICT training and managed to get a scholarship from the World Bank for further education.

Duse’s story is just a microcosm of Africa’s enormous progress in connectivity over the past decade – 40% of the African population have been currently connected to the Internet, quadrupled from 10% in 2010. Thanks to the broadband network, the isolated get connected, the dejected restore their dreams, and the impossible becomes possible.

In addition to the massive growth in internet penetration, the digital response from Africa has also been impressive amidst social distancing and COVID-19 pandemic, when physical contacts are extremely restricted and broadband connectivity becomes even more urgently crucial. During national lockdowns, South Africa’s regulator ICASA innovatively issued temporary spectrum to telecommunications operators, to ease the network congestion with demand for bandwidth surging. In Morocco, a joint press release from the Ministries of Education and Trade announced on March 22, one week after school suspension came into effect, that three major telecom operators would offer free internet access to all online learning portals. All these best practices serve to demonstrate that Africa has great potential and capacity to embrace a world of full connectivity and towards holistic digitalization.

However, the indisputable fact that there are still 60% of the African population (with the world average 41%) unconnected to the Internet is too alarming to ignore. It is estimated that over a quarter of a billion school children in Africa have been affected by COVID-19 and most of them lack the digital tools to continue their education online.

Moreover, the pandemic is hitting Africa’s economy since many people have lost their jobs and faced extreme difficulties to find one due to lack of internet access. This conveys a strong and concerning message that reliable broadband connectivity is absolutely critical to keep the economy running and maintain essential social activities. As the COVID-19 crisis wears on, and pandemics of this kind become more common, Africa cannot afford to wait. It is a challenge, and also a window of opportunity for Africa to accelerate the deployment of a universal, reliable, and affordable broadband network.

During a recent webinar featuring “Delivering a Broadband Africa” cohosted by AFRICA CEO FORUM and Huawei, Dr. Hamadoun Touré, Minister of Digital Economy of Mali, considered affordability as one of the biggest barriers to internet access in Mali. Many panelists echoed his point, and regarded it as a prominent issue bothering most African countries. Statistics show that the average cost of 1GB of data on the continent is 7.12 percent of the average monthly salary, with some countries reaching as high as 20 percent, making broadband connectivity a privilege exclusive to the wealthiest few.

To tackle the problem, governments play a crucial role by implementing effective sector regulation, addressing potential market failures, and creating the conditions for an open, competitive broadband sector. Network sharing, a key lever for cost reduction, can be promoted through wholesale open access, which can lead to healthy competition and benefit end-users with cost-effective services. Tunisia has a relatively competitive wholesale market and has been actively working on strengthening the national backbone infrastructure capacity through related offers of active or passive network sharing made available by the incumbent operator, Tunisie Telecom to the operators in the market.

Its penetration rate now stands at 66.8%, ranked 5th out of 54 African countries. Wayleave charge is another obstacle hindering broadband deployment and pushing up the cost. In Nigeria, the government promoted infrastructure sharing by offering a two-year moratorium on wayleave charges for fibre deployment along roads with same trenches. It can efficiently accelerate fibre deployment, which is recognized as future-proof with greater bandwidth, lower latency, and better energy efficiency.

Undoubtedly, providing affordable and high-quality service is an important step to narrow the current digital gap, but looking into the future, ICT skill cultivation should be put on the top of our agenda. Regardless of being temporarily lagging behind, Africa has abundant potential to catch up as the world’s youngest continent, with 70% of its population under the age of 25. During the online award ceremony of Huawei Sub-Saharan Africa ICT Competition 2019-2020, I had an opportunity to congratulate winners from Tanzania, Uganda, and other regions, who led their teams to the global final. This year, more than 50,000 students from 14 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa participated in our ICT Competition, the largest in scale so far.

Over the past five years, Huawei has cooperated with over 250 universities in 14 Sub-Saharan countries, equipping more than 7,000 university students with advanced ICT knowledge and skills, and Huawei ICT certification, which helps them stand out in the competitive job market. Shaza Hossam, a student from Suez University in Egypt, has had a deep relationship with Huawei, from participating in the ICT Competition, to becoming an intern recognized by HCIP certification. Shaza really enjoyed her journey here, which “brings her closer to the job market and work experience.” Later, she told us that she already recommended the program to all of her friends. We are so proud to be part of their growth, and are dedicated to getting further engaged with Africa’s ICT talent development in the future.