By Dan Kwach, Managing Director of Africa Data Centres East Africa Region.
Africa, while enjoying rapid progress in areas like urbanisation and social transformation, has been slow in digitising – which has had deep economic and societal consequences for the continent.
Africa’s lagging digitisation can largely be attributed to the continent’s lack of resources – which has led to the slow, low, or lack of implementation of key building blocks of the digitisation process. For example, without robust and ubiquitous Internet access, digitisation is severely challenged, and until recently, the continent as a whole consumed a mere 1% of total international bandwidth.
Encouragingly, this is changing.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced large sectors of the African population into remote work, consumer behaviour – noticeably the growth of streaming-based entertainment – prompted a growing demand for data centres on the continent.
While in the past, data centre construction was limited to a few key markets where power supply was reliable and building contractors accessible, the boom in smartphone adoption, as well as business uptake of cloud computing, has led to a spike in demand for data centres.
Additionally, digitisation is now topping the list of priorities for leadership across the continent as it is recognised as a driving force for growth. The African Union, identifying the opportunity to take advantage of technological developments and leapfrog the continent forward, is developing a Digital Transformation Strategy, which – as with all digital transformation initiatives – places cloud computing at its heart.
Similar to how the US cloud computing industry exploded in the 2000s, prompting a shift from on-premise data storage to colocation facilities and cloud providers, African businesses have recognised, and are rapidly adopting, cloud-computing strategies, and profiting from the benefits they have to offer. The consequential requirement for reliable and secure data centres is inevitable.
The immediate benefit to Africa’s economy
Cloud computing makes IT services – from the storage and processing of data to software applications – instantly available and accessible. In many African regions, the cloud computing model is viewed as the solution to a lack of ICT hardware – providing a bridge to business-critical technology without the required onerous financial outlay. However, a hurdle facing the roll-out and uptake of this model is the dearth of high-speed connectivity.
While the continent enjoys the rapid development of mobile networks, it’s playing catch-up on the deployment of fixed infrastructure and high-speed networks.
Concurrently, business leaders in Africa find themselves under increasing pressure. They have to deal with the significant, often intense, and always unbalanced competition between African businesses and their counterparts in the developed world. Alongside this, the global pandemic has forced organisations across the board to boost their efforts to lower operating costs, rationalise investments, increase productivity and drive innovation. Building data centres is the only way the continent can fulfil the growing requirements for storage and networking that are so critical to meeting the continent’s digital transformation goals.
There’s no doubt the race is on, and data centre development is entering new frontiers the world over. The pandemic has accelerated the move to the cloud, which in turn is driving demand for more data centres.
The ongoing and sustained investment in connectivity and broadband across the continent is encouraging to note – and, it’s laying the foundations for true African digital transformation. But the challenge is vast: when compared to other data centre markets across the globe, Africa is unique in the sense it has a population of over 1.3 billion people and a total landmass of some 30,365,000 km. The lag in providing cloud services, reliant on the reliable underlying infrastructure, to the majority of Africa’s population is understandable when these metrics are truly understood. Additionally, this problem is exacerbated by a wide range of new technologies, such as analytics, IoT, and artificial intelligence that are driving the demand for rapid, high-availability services – that needs an infrastructure that is maintained within the continent’s borders, and not situated on foreign soil, and therefore out of its immediate control.
And yet, the demand for data centre colocation services on the continent has never been greater. The continent is hungry for digital, cloud and mobile services, both for its own consumption and to help the region connect to the broader global data economy, which in turn will have a positive impact on economic and social development.
Even though the past few years have seen several data centres being built in several growing African markets, this is only the beginning. The demand for more data centres in Africa is soaring, and at the same time, many global companies are looking to the continent for data centre development and support. Africa will only benefit from interconnected, carrier and cloud-neutral data centre facilities that enable organisations across the public and private sector harness the benefits of ICTs and the economies of scale that the cloud provides.
Data centres are the lifeblood of economic growth in Africa and without them, rich and self-sufficient ICT ecosystems cannot be developed. The continent needs a vision of a pan-African network of carrier-neutral data centres, which is exactly what Africa Data Centres is doing, and the company is the largest operator in this space. This is the way of the future, as we can offer services in every region in which we are present and to any international customer who wants to get a foothold in Africa. Our aim is simple: to digitalise Africa and interconnect our data centres across the continent to drive true digital transformation.