African response: Seven ways the local datacentre space is booming

An impassioned response to an article IDG Connect published on 9th June

Adrian Schofield gives an impassioned response to ‘Seven things to know about datacentre deployment in Africa’ published on 9th June 

Africa is the continent of opportunity. Often, viewers from the outside see it as un(der)developed, lacking infrastructure, filled with untamed wildlife and poor, unskilled people. Too often, viewers from the inside believe what they have been told by those on the outside. We all end up believing the bad stuff.

IDG Connect recently published an article about a conference held in Europe to discuss data centre development in Africa and it seems that the focus was on the “chronic lack of datacentres” and the issues constraining their implementation.

I would like to take issue with the “experts” and their reported opinions, based on the reality that there are already myriad data centres across Africa, including those of the “big players”, with more to come. I won’t have the space to go into detail but here are my comments on the so-called constraints.

Cost: there is no real shortage of investment capital available for viable projects. Literally dozens of existing privately-owned data centres are proof, if it is needed, that the money has been found. As with any line of business, an appropriate funding model can be constructed for any feasible proposition.

Cybercrime: there is no evidence that Africa presents a greater risk of vulnerability to cybercrime than elsewhere, especially around a well-run installation. The same technology that mitigates the risk in Amsterdam is available in Abuja. Mr Alfred-Adekeye of Multiven suggested “local factors make it worse” in Africa. I cannot imagine what those factors are – hacking into systems is a global phenomenon, not a regional one.

Unique market conditions: Ross Macdonald was quoted as saying, “We haven’t seen the large players in Africa…” Microsoft and IBM are not large enough for Mr Macdonald? African market conditions are not so unique, certainly not in the major urban areas.

Datacentre skills: every country bemoans the lack of technology skills. Europe frequently forecasts that it needs anything up to a million skilled IT practitioners if its progress is not to be curtailed. Africa has hundreds of millions of young people eager to learn how to adopt and adapt technology to enhance their economic value. There is nothing so unique about the skills to build and operate a datacentre that they cannot be learned and applied in Africa. It is patronising to suggest otherwise.

Power: the participants argued against themselves when it came to stating there is a lack of reliable grid power. Some of us would argue that living off grid is the better route to a sustainable future, and there is no continent more suited to benefitting from alternative power sources than Africa – blessed as it is with sun, wind and water.

Strategic growth: I was amazed by the suggestion that, in 2017, investing in datacentres in Africa would be “starting from the ground up”. Data Centre Africa [report for sale] records that there are 91 datacentres in 16 African countries, from Angola to Zambia (or from Egypt to South Africa, if you prefer). Colocation Africa provides links to 53 centres, 21 in South Africa alone. I think we are well past the initial stage of growth in the sector. These numbers do not include those datacentres that are servicing one client (including the major banks, financial services groups and retail chains, as examples).

Data sovereignty: the opportunity for those on the outside who are concerned about Africa’s maturity in this field is to work with local policy makers and legislators to fix the problem. Many African governments are already critically aware of the importance of data sovereignty and, indeed, are taking steps to protect their own data in this regard. It is one of the motivating factors behind the increasing numbers of datacentres on the continent, so that data can be held “onshore”.

The African datacentre business is not hampered, certainly not by the issues discussed in Monaco. IBM has two research laboratories in Africa, as well as its own datacentres. Microsoft already has datacentres in Cape Town and Johannesburg and is looking to provide Azure services from within the continent. The major telcos run data centres – MTN, Vodafone, Liquid Telecom/Neotel, Telkom/BCX, to name but a few. Teraco is investing millions of dollars expanding its already significant facilities in South Africa.

Africa regularly demonstrates that it can do anything it sets its mind to. We are “up there” when it comes to technology. African brains have created satellites, data security software, mobile banking, the Square Kilometre Array, pay-tv by satellite and gaming systems.

Of course, we have challenges. 54 countries and many more cultural communities give us a lot to think about as we go around our daily business. Yes, we have hungry people with disease and deprivation. None of which should deter investors, local and overseas, from seeing prime locations in Africa as safe havens for a good return on investment. If you believe in self-fulfilling prophecies, I would rather go for the one that says, the more we invest in Africa, the greater will be the returns and reduction in poverty, instead of one that suggests we are hampered by imaginary hurdles.

If you sense that I am passionate about Africa’s potential, you’d be right. Africa adopted me and enabled my interest in technology to add to my personal socio-economic value. I wish that it does the same for you.