Connecting the continent – imagine Africa’s Internet in 2030
Here’s a thought. Imagine if we grew the Internet in Africa over the next decade as fast as we grew it in the last… what would that mean for the continent?
In my business meetings and social engagements alike, we all agree that the digital economy is crucial to Africa’s economic development. The World Bank states that universal and affordable Internet coverage can help address crippling issues such as poverty and unemployment. Africa’s digital transformation would help raise growth per capita by 1.5% and reduce the poverty headcount by 0.7% per year. Given that so little of the current population has high-speed access to the Internet, there is some exciting – and necessary - work ahead. Momentum is already well underway. In the last 10 years, the number of local Internet Exchange Point (IXP)s has doubled and there are now 46 active IXPs across 34 African countries. If we could double that again over the next 10 years, there could be up to 100 IXPs helping to connect the African continent by 2030.
IXP growth = economic growth
IXPs operate as interconnection points for networks. They are essential pieces of infrastructure that help keep Internet traffic local and thus, more accessible and affordable. What’s more, their presence is an important indication of a market’s developmental stage. There’s a marked difference between countries that have developed a strong IXP ecosystem and those that are still on the rise. The Internet Society reports how the exponential growth of IXPs in Kenya has contributed to faster and more affordable Internet connectivity, improving user experience and reducing users’ costs hugely. For example, the Kenya Internet Exchange Point (KIXP) grew from carrying a peak traffic load of 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) in 2012 to 19 Gbps in 2020. According to the ISOC report, this resulted in vast cost savings for all networks that could connect to the KIXP. Fast forward 10 years and it wouldn’t be surprising to see terabit per second peaks at IXs in Kenya.
South Africa has six Internet exchange points. The largest IXP is NAPAfrica - not just in South Africa but in Africa – with three Internet exchange points and over 700 members. The other three Internet exchange points are with INX-ZA which manages JINX – the oldest IXP on the continent and one of the oldest IXPs still operational globally. As of 2020, South Africa’s six exchange points carry more than 1Tbps. This has saved networks fortunes. There is no doubt that IXPs drive Internet ecosystem growth which in turn, helps fuel a country’s economy.
IXPs need networks
The growth of IXPs across the continent is impressive. However, we need to acknowledge the importance of underlying infrastructure. This enables networks to reach users and interconnect with other networks such as content networks at an IXP. Interestingly, the number of unique terrestrial paths connecting Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya is roughly equivalent to the number of paths between Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa. If we look to West Africa though, there is no comparable connectivity between two of its metropolitan areas. South Africa has established itself as the Internet hub for Southern Africa and Kenya is currently the hub for East Africa. Right now, the jury is out on where the hub will emerge in the west. Fast forward 10 years and make a guess – Lagos or Accra? Abidjan or Kinshasa?
Perhaps the mix of English and French-speaking countries has constrained collaboration somewhat in West Africa. As it stands, there isn’t enough collaboration between markets with each doing its own thing. The ISOC report does state that in Nigeria, the IXPN grew from carrying just 300 Megabits per second (Mbps) to peak traffic of 125 Gbps in 2020. One would only presume that Ghana is gearing up too but are there enough networks to support IXP growth in West Africa?
Easy, ethical business environments
Healthy regulatory environments are an important factor in developing the ecosystem. What is clear is that the ability to get licensed quickly and efficiently and at a fair price has a huge impact. Workonline for instance, recently secured its license in Ghana and has selected PAIX’s carrier-neutral data centre to deploy its first point of presence (POP) in West Africa. This is a great step in the right direction to boost Ghana’s Internet ecosystem and hopefully position Accra as a key city for interconnection in West Africa.
Our mission now is to further develop the Internet ecosystem across Africa; extend networks, reduce costs, localise traffic, boost local content production, and ensure robust, reliable connectivity. While there are many challenges ahead, the achievements so far demonstrate an ambitious continent – from east to west, north to south – eager to grow.
We don't know exactly where it will all land but I have a feeling it will be up and to the right on any graph!