Improved connectivity in Africa promises to boost digital services

On 04-11-2022
Reading time : 6 minutes

To drive its economies forward and increase digital adoption by both enterprises and end-users, Africa requires access to hardware and greater availability of affordable connectivity infrastructure. If the continent can reduce its digital divide, there is a potentially huge market for digital services.

Consider the demographics of Africa: the continent’s population was around 1.3 billion people in 2020, and is forecast to reach 1.5 billion by 2025. That’s equivalent to the population of India, but spread over a geographical area 10 times larger. In the past 20 years, life expectancy in Africa has increased by 11 years to 61. 

At the same time, and despite these rapidly changing demographics, the digital divide persists. On average, more than 50% of Africa’s population still has no internet access. And in addition to this limited internet coverage, connectivity and hardware prices continue to be a barrier to adoption for many potential users. 

The GSMA has reported on the “usage gap” that exists on the continent: at the end of 2020, 53% of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa users still did not use mobile internet despite living in an area that had mobile broadband coverage. Five of the 10 most expensive countries to buy mobile data in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. Mobile data is so expensive in some countries that 1GB can cost at least $10, which is 250 times more expensive than Israel, the country reported to have the world’s cheapest data.

It all adds up to a market that has huge potential for digital services, if the right tools and mechanisms are in place to deliver them. But moves are underway to develop infrastructure that should help Africa move forward.

Expanding subsea infrastructure

Several companies are involved in projects to enhance connectivity in Africa and connect the unconnected. Two major new submarine cables are being deployed, with Google’s Equiano cable stretching from South Africa all the way up the west coast and as far as Portugal. There is also 2Africa subsea cable, being developed by a consortium led by Facebook and including Orange. This cable will eventually be 7,000 kilometers long, encircle the African continent, deliver speeds of up to 180 Tbps and is scheduled to be operational in 2023. 

Both these projects will make it easier to deploy 4G and 5G as well as fixed broadband for hundreds of millions of people throughout the continent. It's also hoped that these cables will help drive down internet prices, with the massive capacities enabled by these newer cables allowing lower prices per Gb than older versions. 

Building out fiber

Terrestrial networks also have a role to play in connecting the unconnected. And while fiber is uneconomic to roll out over a large geographical area with a dispersed population, it is beneficial in connecting landlocked countries and bandwidth-hungry cities. In 2020, Africa was home to 68 cities with a population of over a million people, and that number is forecast to grow to 100 by 2025. That’s a lot of end-users. 

As such, a further 300,000 kilometers of terrestrial links have been either proposed or planned or are already in construction, to add to the existing million kilometers. The terrestrial network capacity in Africa has grown at a rate of around 12.5% per year over the past decade: back in 2010, 259 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lived within 25 kilometers of a fiber-optic network node. By mid-2019, that number had pretty much doubled to 584 million people

Cross-border connectivity

Another area where Africa is making significant progress is in cross-border interconnectivity. In 2021 there were several announcements of new initiatives, including connections between Cameroon and Chad, Cameroon and Gabon, and Tanzania and Mozambique. Again, it is hoped that this will help to lower costs, especially for land-locked countries, as more international access options are made available.

2021 saw other regional developments, including the rise of fiber powerhouses like Liquid Intelligent Technologies, which now has terrestrial fiber stretching from South Africa to Egypt, and from Kenya to DRC. To further advance domestic fiber in Africa, Orange has announced a partnership with Liquid to connect its fiber networks, enabling new digital opportunities in over 20 countries. Other moves are in play, including Paratus expanding from Namibia into the Southern African region and BCS installing fiber infrastructure throughout East Africa. 2021 also saw a continuation of the trend for power companies to invest in fiber, often partnering with telcos to open up new markets and offer new services. 

Important role of satellite

And while there have been significant domestic developments, that isn’t to say that there is enough to deliver the infrastructure required by the whole population of Sub-Saharan Africa. So low earth orbit (LEO) satellite will have a big role in Africa moving forward. 

Companies like Telesat, OneWeb, and Starlink are making advances in Africa, and while there are still some concerns about LEO satellite’s expensive business model, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believes that satellite is likely to bring more people online in Africa in the next five years than other technologies

Local internet connections

Internet exchange points (IXP) are also being expanded in Africa to increase local connections between internet providers, and help operators and content providers with another more affordable option. IXPs are locations where different networks can exchange local traffic via a switch, avoiding the need for expensive international links, and providing greater resilience, stability, efficiency, and quality at a lower cost. 

According to the African IXP Association there are currently 49 active IXPs in 35 countries in Africa, compared to 255 active IXPs in Europe, which has one third of the land mass of Africa and less than half the people. According to the Internet Society, the number of African IXPs increased by 58% between 2012 and 2020, and major players continue to announce investments in IXPs in Africa, including the London Internet Exchange (LINX) and AMS-IX, which has partnered with MainData Nigeria Limited (MDXi).

Increasing data center density

In Africa, absence of neutral data centers and affordable, non-discriminatory, cross-connect costs has long been a challenge for content providers. Data centers are congested in Africa, with more than 50% of them located in South Africa today. 

But things are changing, with moves like Africa Data Centers announcing a US$500m investment plan to build 10 hyperscale data centers in 10 countries across Africa in the coming two years. More local data centers throughout Africa could give the continent’s end-users the same quality of service and low latency enjoyed by end-users in Europe, help enable services like video streaming, gaming or other cloud-based applications.

This is no easy feat though. Unstable and inconsistent electrical supply and massive cooling demands in hot African countries make it difficult to meet all the conditions needed for proper functioning of a data center.

An improving landscape

All this adds up to reasons for optimism throughout Africa, with more people getting more access to affordable, fast, reliable internet. There is more to do, but the moves made by some major technology industry players to accelerate access throughout the continent are significant. 

Affordable, wider-reaching internet and increasing smartphone adoption can help Africa’s digital economy grow: it is currently valued at $115 billion, and is projected to grow sixfold by 2050. Reports also predict that 44 million jobs could be created if connectivity throughout Africa reached 75%. With more companies getting involved in deploying connectivity infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa, the continent’s digital ecosystem will deliver for consumers and enterprises alike.

How Orange Wholesale International is helping 

Orange has been investing €1 billion every year to help develop Africa’s digital economy and address its needs in education, health, employment, and more. It aligns with our Engage 2025 business strategy, which has digital inclusion and environmental responsibility at its center in addition to developing networks and infrastructures.

In terms of networks and infrastructure, Orange Wholesale International, Orange’s wholesale arm has objectives for Africa which include:


1. Keeping intra-African traffic in Africa

Through a combination of terrestrial networks, satellite capabilities, and connections to international submarine cables, Orange supports network traffic growth for all African operators. As a member of the Smart Africa Alliance, Orange is fully committed to the One African Network (OAN) project, designed to reduce the cost of communications while guaranteeing to keep intra-African traffic within Africa.

2. Digital services for Africa, hosted in Africa

We have built a network of interconnected data centers in Africa which optimize international connectivity costs and latency to improve response times, while respecting Africa’s data sovereignty. To address growing cyberthreats, Orange Wholesale International has developed a DDoS protection offer that secures up to 2.8 terabits of traffic per second. We also support telecommunications operators with anti-fraud solutions to protect their voice and mobile traffic.

3. Connecting Africa to the world

Orange is not only expanding mobile coverage but also increasing the speed and quality of connections so that everyone throughout Africa can access the internet and essential services. This has seen a major investments in undersea and terrestrial cables, including the “Africa Coast to Europe” (ACE) undersea cable, Main One, 2Africa and Djoliba, Orange’s first integrated pan-West African fiber backbone. Partnerships with other major players are also driving mutual benefits, such as the partnership between Orange and Liquid Intelligent Technologies to share fiber networks or with SES to deploy and manage the first gateway in Africa to O3b mPower, SES’s next-generation MEO satellite communications system.

To read more about Orange’s dedication to Africa’s digital development, please visit:  

Digital Africa


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