Closing the Digital Divide in Africa

Increased upstream capacity helps, but downstream affordability must also be addressed

Martin Atkinson
Oluwasayo Oshadami
Closing the Digital Divide in Africa

A recent report from the Internet Society[1] (ISOC) ranks the maturity of internet services in African countries through three stages of transformation: from Stage 1, with 30% or less local peering and 70% of content delivered remotely, to Stage 3, where 80% of internet content is cached and peered in-country. In an earlier report[2], ISOC ranked Nigeria and Kenya at Stage 2 and only South Africa at Stage 3. The rest of Africa is largely undeveloped at Stage 1, despite the welcome presence of many internet exchange points (IXPs).

The ISOC white papers may create the misperception that IXPs alone drive internet growth and facilitate local content peering. Although an IX presence is essential, a mature Stage 3 internet ecosystem requires all of the following:

  • Public IXP bilateral (1:1) and multilateral (1:N) peering
  • Private (1:1) direct peering over physical cross-connects in shared colocation space
  • Competitively priced international transit/wholesale upstream internet, delivering global reach
  • CDNs, content providers and cloud service providers that offer cloud storage, online gaming and other communication services to help localize traffic
  • Middle-mile and last-mile infrastructures, including cross-border data flows

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In addition, the digital divide in Africa has both an upstream and a downstream component. Increased upstream capacity is a step in the right direction, but devices and mobile data plans must become more affordable in order to drive widespread adoption.

Upstream growth is driven by new cable systems

For coastal sub-Saharan Africa, the availability of wholesale upstream internet is determined by subsea cable capacity and pricing. The availability and cost of international connectivity between Africa and the rest of the world will be transformed by the Equiano and 2Africa cable systems, developed by Google and Meta, respectively. (2Africa also lands at the Equinix GN1 data center in Genoa.)

Google anticipates that the 20x increase in capacity provided by the Equiano cable will increase typical internet download speeds in Nigeria six-fold, reduce the cost of mobile and broadband internet subscriptions by 21% and add $10 billion to the Nigerian GDP, all while creating 1.6 million jobs.[3]

Meta’s perspective is more general: “We have seen first-hand the positive impact that increased connectivity has on communities, from education to healthcare. We know that economies flourish when there is widely accessible internet for businesses…We see 2Africa as an important pillar supporting tremendous internet expansion as part of Africa’s growing digital economy.”[4]

In delivering the many valuable services Google and Meta offer, these organizations are following their historic model of disintermediation. As a recent article from Rest of World put it: “Equiano and 2Africa, bought and paid for with the titanic profits of Meta and Google, derived primarily from their advertising businesses, won’t have to be profitable at all.”[5]

This is an important fact: the predicted drop in Africa’s international connectivity costs will be substantial because the ultimate prize for both companies is not direct profit from the cable systems, but acquisition of hundreds of millions of new subscribers and their valuable data.

Although these two cables will bring rapid growth in Africa’s upstream capacity and dramatically reduce the cost of wholesale bandwidth, Google Africa’s Managing Director Nitin Gajria made a critical observation: in relation to African incomes, data costs remain “incredibly expensive.” The Equiano cable will help reduce international transport costs upstream of the national subsea gateways, but the issue is a “multifaceted problem that Google can’t fix alone.”[6]

African nations must overcome middle-mile and last-mile infrastructure challenges

It is indeed this “multifaceted problem” that defines the remaining challenges to closing the digital divide and kickstarting African digital economies. While the planned subsea cable projects by Google and Meta will play an important role in closing the digital divide, African nations need significant investment in their national backbone, middle-mile, and last-mile networks to derive more benefits from the cable investments.

Using Nigeria as a case study, the Nigerian National Broadband Plan 2020-2025[7] highlights some of the distribution network’s challenges, especially within the middle-mile network and last-mile access. The middle-mile network has low fiber penetration and relies predominantly on microwave technologies. The last-mile access is impacted by ultra-low fiber penetration, mostly on 2G with low 4G access.

Three-tier broadband architecture framework (Source: World Bank/NBP Committee)

Landlocked countries need cross-border services

There are 16 landlocked countries in Africa, all of which are cut off from the additional capacity provided by subsea cables. These countries rely on capacity delivered through neighboring countries. Ensuring sufficient capacity in sea-facing nations is only the starting point; downstream distribution remains a constraint standing in the way of higher service quality and more affordable pricing.

In addition to existing national backbone limitations, landlocked countries require terrestrial infrastructure to pick up capacity from the sea-facing nations, and some cannot utilize the international bandwidth on the shores of their region due to hostilities. Building political relationships and peace and stability between neighboring countries will contribute to greater internet penetration and affordability. Wars and civil unrest limit the ability of neighboring countries to cooperate and extend fiber infrastructures across borders.

Affordability remains a barrier to downstream connectivity

According to a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, only 33% of Africans were using the internet as of 2021. This means that about 871 million people are being left behind.[8]

The tables and charts below detail mobile phone usage in several African countries. (Terrestrial broadband is simply not available outside major cities). The U.S. is added for comparison purposes.

Number of mobile subscribers in African nations and technology used (Source: TeleGeography)

Carnegie also identifies a mobile usage gap as the largest contributor to the digital divide in Africa. Although mobile infrastructure coverage has increased in Africa, the usage gap has widened from 36% in 2014 to 53% in 2020.[9]

About 85% of the world’s population lives within 4G networks, and it’s estimated that nearly half of them are still offline or not connected to 4G due to the high cost of internet access and internet-enabled devices relative to income levels. As shown above, the significant majority of users in sub-Saharan Africa still use 2G and 3G networks.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the least affordable handsets compared to any region, which is a key factor perpetuating the digital divide. For the poorest 20% of Africans, even a basic internet-enabled device is completely out of reach, as it would cost more than 120% of their monthly income.[10]

Another barrier to digital adoption in sub-Saharan Africa is literacy and digital skills. Despite awareness, more than half of those not using mobile internet report the literacy and digital skills barrier. The barriers primarily affect women and people living in rural communities.

While digital transformation in Africa is progressing at an impressive rate, it’s clear that the massive increase in competitively priced subsea capacity and ongoing investment in mobile network infrastructure will not solve the affordability challenge. Bridging the gap in affordable access to mobile broadband will require persistence and creativity.

MainOne, An Equinix Company, is a key enabler of West African digital transformation

Digital infrastructure is driven not only through the public internet; private interconnection also facilitates enterprise-grade services for B2B businesses, enabling hybrid multicloud, SaaS, payment processing, and other capabilities that are essential for companies looking to drive digital transformation.

MainOne, An Equinix Company, is enabling both public internet connectivity and private interconnection through the ecosystem we’ve built in West Africa.

We’ve built the largest digital ecosystem in West Africa through our submarine cable with direct access to Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Cameroon, and service delivery to 10 countries in the region, including landlocked countries Burkina Faso and Chad. The subsea network provides lit capacity of over 2 Tb into Europe from West Africa, with an additional 1 Tb of terrestrial capacity distributed downstream across different metros.

Our data center subsidiary, MDXi, An Equinix Company, operates Tier-3 data centers across West Africa. It serves more than 1,000 B2B customers, hosting network and internet service providers, regional IXs, global content providers, and cloud service providers to deliver the region’s largest and most interconnected network ecosystem.

At MainOne, we’re planning to advance the ecosystem within West Africa with new investments in data center capacity expansion in existing locations. Planned infrastructure and capacity expansion will attract more international cloud providers to set up edge or cloud nodes in the region. This will help localize more content and improve user experience.

The acquisition of MainOne by Equinix earlier this year will facilitate the deployment of Equinix Fabric™, a software-defined interconnection platform that aggregates distributed infrastructure and interconnects customers seamlessly with submarine cable providers, Tier-1 network service providers, and compute, storage, and application providers to deliver services across 240+ Equinix IBX® data centers globally.

The recent announcement of MDXi’s partnership with AMS-IX[11] aims to grow the number of peers and interconnected networks within the regional ecosystem. The 11 Tb of traffic and 883 ASNs that AMS-IX brings along can certainly add to that.

MDXi interconnected ecosystem

Equinix is putting our values into action to help address the digital divide in Africa

At Equinix, we have a long history of working to advance digital inclusion across the world. The latest example of this is the launch of the Equinix Foundation, an employee-driven charitable initiative that seeks to support more widespread, equitable and inclusive access to digital connectivity across all the global communities in which we operate. To support the work of the Foundation, Equinix has made an initial financial commitment of $50 million.

To learn more about the Equinix vision for distributed digital infrastructure, in Africa and across the globe, read the Platform Equinix vision paper today.


[1] The Internet Society, “Moving Toward an Interconnected Africa: The 80/20 initiative”. Michael Kende, July 2021.

[2] The Internet Society, “Anchoring the African Internet Ecosystem: Lessons from Kenya and Nigeria’s Internet Exchange Point Growth”. Michael Kende, June 2020.

[3] Google, “Equiano Subsea Cable: Regional Economic Impact Assessment”.

[4] Engineering at Meta, “Building a transformative subsea cable to better connect Africa”.

[5] Rest of World, “Sea Change”. Andrew Blum and Carey Baraka, May 10, 2022.

[6] The Africa Report, “Google Africa Chief says Equiano cable will lift inland Internet access”. David Whitehouse, October 20, 2021.

[7] Nigerian National Broadband Plan 2020 – 2025

[8] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “To Close Africa’s Digital Divide, Policy Must Address the Usage Gap”. Jane Munga, April 26, 2022.

[9] Ibid.

[10] GSM Association, “Connected Society: The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2020”.

[11] Capacity Media, “AMS-IX, MainData to launch neutral internet exchange in Lagos”. Saf Malik, August 24, 2022.


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Martin Atkinson Senior Manager of Peering and Interconnection EMEA
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Oluwasayo Oshadami General Manager Technical Solutions and Managed Networks
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