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Africa’s Digital Infrastructure Towards Uncanny Valley

By Andile Ngcaba

Convergence Partners sees the growing tech adoption and innovation driven by the continent’s young population signifying a bright digital future for the continent. Africa’s young digital natives provide a solid base for tech industry growth and serve as a target market for innovation and consumption. By 2045, Africa must have built a robust digital infrastructure network in preparation for new technologies such as 6G, 7G and High-Altitude Platforms (HAPS). Now is the time for Africa to shape its digital infrastructure future by strategically consolidating all resources that impact the digital. The newly established Convergence Partners Digital Infrastructure Fund (CPDIF) aligns with the 2063 vision of the “Africa We Want”.

History shows that communications infrastructure combined with resources like Outer Space orbital slots, Electromagnetic Frequency Spectrum, technology-centric rare earth elements (REE), submarine terrain, maritime satellite, IP numbers, addresses and Domain Name System (DNS) can transform lives. Unfortunately, due to the colonial system, Africa was denied a seat at the global telecommunication decision-making table when these resources were discussed and allocated. Only after their independence in the late 1960s did African countries start participating in institutions like the Office of Outer Space Affairs, Intelsat, ITU and others. Similarly, challenges surfaced in the early developments of global and regional internet registries. IP addresses and domain name systems are a resource crucial to the success of the digital infrastructure. Therefore, as we advance, Africa must guard its IPV4, IPV6 and DNS assets, as these are foundational to the successful development of its digital infrastructure. 

Recently, the significance of Rare Earth Elements (REEs) in tech has emerged. Their magnetic, catalytic, and electrochemical properties are essential for the tech industry, used in semiconductors, hardware, and networks. African countries such as Madagascar, South Africa, Namibia, and Burundi have large quantities of REEs like neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium. Therefore, Africa must attract investment in REE exploration and material science research and development for semiconductor technology. By doing so, Africa can secure a strategic position in the semiconductor industry and drive the digital world as one of the biggest consumers and suppliers of REEs by 2050.

In the 1970s, African nations formed PANAFTEL to address the lack of connectivity on the continent. PANAFTEL later led to the establishment of the Pan African Telecommunications Union (PATU) in 1979, now African Telecommunications Union (ATU), which showed a commitment to bridging the digital divide. The ITU Plenipotentiary conference in Nairobi in 1982 resulted in the formation of the Independent Commission for World-Wide Telecommunications Development to address the barriers to communication infrastructure growth. The commission’s “missing link” report highlighted the unequal distribution of telephone access between developed and developing nations and played a significant role in attracting investment into the telecommunications infrastructure. However, in Planet earth there are still two billion people without internet access. This disparity prompted the recent establishment of the ITU Partner to Connect coalition. The coalition’s first annual report was launched in Kigali in June 2022, emphasizing the importance of continued cooperation in bridging the digital divide. The coming age of blockchain, Metaverse, and Web 3.0, mandates a review of ATU’s role. In addition, there is a need to reform the disparate national policies and regulatory frameworks to keep pace with new developments. For example, the Pan African regulatory framework needs a relook to establish digital infrastructure policy and regulatory regime in line with The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), promoting regional network integration. 

Africa skipped fixed telephony to bring many online mobile phones to where Africa is on par with global technology applications. The growth of mobile phone diffusion and the continent’s youthful population are great assets. Just as investing in technology is critical to building 21st-century industries, youth education in deep technology is essential. The youth are key to Africa’s progress.   

In February 2023, industry leaders will gather at the Barcelona Mobile World Congress (MWC) to discuss the future of technology and its impact on telecommunications and mobile networks. One of the focus areas of the congress is Web 3.0 and its role in shaping industries. Later in the year, the World Radio Conference 2023 in Dubai will set the 2027 World Radio Conference agenda, including the 6G spectrum and the preliminary agenda for WRC -2031. Clearly, the view of long-term investment is crucial in this fast-paced industry where technology transitions and disruptions are commonplace.

In the same way, that transition from Web 1.0 to Web 20 appeared to bring the internet capacity into question; recent developments brought all we know into question. ChatGPT has “thrown the cat amongst the pigeons“. ChatGPT is growing rapidly in users and value, with over 100 million users in two months and valued at $29 Billion. The move from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 was a transformative shift, and now Web 3.0 is likely to bring new transformational and exponential changes. The creator of Gmail, Paul Buchheit, even went so far as to say that AI chatbots like ChatGPT will destroy Google in the same way that Google killed the yellow pages. Innovations like ChatGPT have been years in the making, even though we are only starting to see the results now. We must, however, be mindful of the algorithm’s unintended consequences or bias. Similarly, after the 2nd World War, attendees of the 1947 International Radio Conference in Atlantic City thought advancements in the electromagnetic frequency spectrum had reached their limit, but now we are entering Terahertz. These events highlight the underestimated limitations of technology that are subject to change.

Convergence Partners’ (CP) impact focus bridges the digital divide with strategic digital infrastructure investments that positively impacts the markets it invests in. The unmet need of the unconnected pushes us to invest in companies that tackle this issue head-on. Africa requires increased investment in submarine cables, terrestrial fiber networks, data centers, satellite services, High Altitude Platforms (HAPS) and more to support its growing digital ecosystem. CPDIF also recognizes the importance of sustainable development goals in supporting sectors like Fintech, Agritech, Edutech, and Healthtech in Africa’s digital landscape. 

Web3.0 technology is another exciting opportunity for Africa. The decentralized nature of Web3.0 renders it more secure and resilient to cyber-attacks. With Africa being a key growth market for the tech industry, the potential for Web3.0 to thrive in Africa is enormous. However, to fully realize the potential of Web3.0, Africa needs to have a robust digital infrastructure in place. By investing in digital infrastructure, Convergence Partners Digital Infrastructure Fund aims to help lay the foundation for Web3.0 to take off in Africa. Web3.0 offers a new way of interacting with the internet. Digital infrastructure finds representation in verticals like Decentralized Physical Infrastructure Networks (DePIN). DePIN aims to revolutionize communication networks with blockchain-based incentive mechanisms. Sub-verticals such as Decentralized Wireless (DeWi) exist in over 14 networks globally. In addition, Africa’s growing population requires efficient spectrum management, and the exploration of spectrum sharing on the blockchain has the potential to enable spectrum trading markets.

Additionally, Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI) has the potential for wide adoption in Africa because of the inherent identification challenges. Given the digital divide and growing youth population, these verticals will thrive on the continent. With the proper digital infrastructure in place, Africa has the potential to leapfrog many Web 2.0 technologies and move directly to Web 3.0. 

In conclusion, Africa must take control of its digital future by embracing Web 3.0 and related technologies. Africa must craft its narrative within the Web 3.0 ecosystem incorporating Natural Language Processing (NLP) solutions that can translate between its diverse range of languages, from Lingala to Hausa, Arabic to Sesotho, and Nama to Songhai. 

Connecting Africa, from Benin to Mombasa, Cape to Cairo, Djibouti to Mauritania, and beyond, requires a robust land-based cross-border optical fiber network. In addition, central and edge data centers are crucial in providing the necessary digital infrastructure to support this next generation of technologies. The future is undeniably digital, we are moving closer to cyborgs, humanoids and uncanny valley, and Africa must secure its place.