Mohammed Aliyu, the Chief FibreCo Officer at Bayobab (formerly MTN Global Connect) writes about the subsea cable industry in Africa following the recent internet disruptions caused by cable breaks in Central Africa.

The recent damage to two critical cables off the coast of the Democratic Republic of Congo serves as a reminder of the need to scale up investment into the African undersea cable industry.  Last month, a rock fall in the Congo Canyon damaged two essential undersea cables, the West African Cable System (WACS) which Bayobab is a part of and Africa Coast to Europe (ACE). 

The WACS and the ACE cables put together make up, 31 500 kilometres. Now the length of these cables on their own has little to no significance to any ordinary citizen and furthermore, are only a drop in the ocean of cables which facilitate connection between nations. However, if you start thinking of the cables as the umbilical cord that connects Africa and the world, you can start imagining the digital disruption that can leave many frustrated by their slow internet or lack thereof. 

Therefore, if we are tied together by this umbilical cord to drive economies, improve productivity and efficiency, to stay connected and to live a modern connected life, an increase in investment in the area that continues to strengthen this umbilical cord- the African undersea cable industry- is paramount. 

Bayobab alone has over 16 Subsea cables with direct investment in 8 major cables including WACS and ACE. This contributes about 312,000 km of underwater infrastructure to the continent. 37 countries in Africa have at least one cable landing, with the continent having experienced significant infrastructure development since 2010. 

The exponential growth in the demand for fibre across Africa correlates with the continent’s rapidly growing digital economy. A report published by Endeavour Nigeria notes that the digital economy is estimated at $115 – billion and is expected to grow to $712-billion by 2050 ( 6 times the current value). By then, McKinsey predicts that Africa’s population would have doubled to 2.5 billion people. 

The bullish outlook on the continent’s digital economy can only be realised through a strong and reliable fibre optic cable backbone which will ensure that millions of people across the continent have uninterrupted internet connectivity. The recent cable breaks, which have disrupted connectivity in Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA), will require significant effort and collaboration by multiple stakeholders. The WACS consortium dispatched the Orange owned, Léon Thévenin to the fault site and the breakage has since been restored. 

Jess Auerbach, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, has rightly noted that Africa was “radically underserved” in terms of the equipment and expertise needed to repair the ever-growing network of undersea cables on the continent. I am however encouraged to see partnerships such as WACS, 2Africa and Project East2West, which collectively seek to bridge the digital divide on the continent. These partnerships, continue to roll out thousands of kilometres of fibre and serve as a crucial remedy to this infrastructure deficit, by enabling service providers to be rerouted to other linked cables in the event of cable breaks. Bayobab is particularly pleased by the East2West (E2W) project because, not only does it help bridge Africa’s connectivity gap by improving broadband access for landlocked African countries, but it also offers substantial improvement for data traffic in Africa which in turn helps boost consumption of local content throughout the region and promote inter-regional exchanges and regional economic development. This means when an Africa connecting subsea fibre cable breaks, African countries can still enjoy the reliability of internet connectivity as E2W ensures continuity of services.
Mohammed Aliyu, Chief FibreCo Officer, Bayobab (formerly MTN Global Connect)

A recent Financial Times report notes that the supply and installation of the world’s 1.4 million kms of fibre cable is currently dominated by companies from France, the US and Japan. As leaders across the private sector and government, we must therefore engage robustly to ensure that more capacity is built out of the African continent, in order to support her growth and ensure that cable breaks such as these two can be addressed expeditiously. 

As Bayobab, we recognise the tremendous amount of work that we still need to embark on to play our role in investing in infrastructure and partnerships that will continue to keep strengthening the umbilical cord of Africa to the rest of the world so that all people, including Africans, continue enjoying the benefits of a modern connected life.