Undersea cable breakages expose Africa’s incapacity to support its digital economy

 Several African countries have been affected by outages or poor internet performance since last week. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

Several African countries have been affected by outages or poor internet performance since last week. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

  • South Africa has 10 undersea cables connecting it to the world.
  • Only three South African undersea cables are currently in service.
  • An Islamist organisation operating in Yemen is accused of destroying cables under the Red Sea, affecting global internet and telecommunications.

Internet disruptions across the continent because of multiple undersea cable faults are showing just how precarious Africa’s connection the digital economy really is.

South Africa is currently still seeing the effects, but many other countries are worse affected, with outages or poor performance since last week in Ivory Coast, Liberia, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon.

In February, three critical cables – AAE-1, EIG, and SEACOM – connecting Africa’s east coast to Europe were disrupted, purportedly due to Houthi sabotage. 

Then, on 14 March, four of the five west coast cables – SAT3, WACS, ACE, and MainOne – were apparently damaged by an underwater rock fall near Ivory Coast. 

These developments exposed Africa’s general lack of capacity, said Edward Lawrence, co-founder of the Workonline Group, one of Africa’s largest Internet Protocol (IP) transit networks. Particularly outside South Africa, at present, but SA too is poorly served compared to the rest of the world.

Lawrence said South Africa was connected to the world by 10 undersea cables of which, only three are in operation currently due to the breakage crisis.

He added:

There are 574 active and planned submarine cables across the globe, yet South Africa only has 10 that connect it to the rest of the world, and seven of these are currently out of action.

Capacity restrictions are further hampered by the time it takes to not only repair underwater cables but also build new infrastructure.

The World Bank has the Digital Economy Initiative for Africa (DE4A) which aims to ensure that every individual, business, and government in Africa will be digitally enabled by 2030.

READ | Here’s how long it will take for the internet in SA to be fully functional again

According to the European Investment Bank, the emergence of an African digital economy could improve millions of lives and swiftly reshape societies. 

The bank says Africa has a unique chance to become more sustainable and generate economic growth by making better use of data, rather than relying on outdated technologies that consume fossil fuels. 

Digitalisation has numerous advantages: it accelerates the spread of information, brings people closer together, creates jobs, and improves societal efficiency.

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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