Digital transformation is increasing in Africa at an ever-accelerating rate. There are specific challenges and opportunities that are entirely unique to the continent. One example is the digital divide in Africa, a gap that both African and multinational tech companies are working to help close.
Internet penetration in sub-Saharan Africa is growing faster than anywhere else in the world, going from less than 1% in 2000 to about 30% in 2022. However, there are about 840 million people on the continent who are still waiting to be connected. The opportunity is clear: Every small step toward closing this coverage gap will bring millions of people online for the first time, driving major dividends in both economic and social development.
If you’re one of the many global business leaders that’s looking to expand into Africa for the first time, read on for a closer look at the challenges and opportunities you may face, and how your counterparts in Africa are addressing them today.
Discover the future of digital leadership
Understand the three ways we are realizing our vision for the future of digital infrastructure.Download Now
Cloud adoption picks up, but businesses will need the right architecture
Major cloud providers are investing to drive wider availability of their services within Africa. In the past, a relative lack of cloud service availability hampered the growth of digital business on the continent, so it’s no surprise that IT leaders in Africa seem ready to make up for lost time and benefit from hard lessons learned elsewhere. In the Equinix Global Tech Trend Survey (GTTS), 77% of IT leaders from both Nigeria and South Africa said they’d be moving more functions to the cloud within the next 12 months. This places both countries ahead of the global average of 71%.
It’s also noteworthy how African businesses are adopting the cloud. The GTTS found that hybrid cloud is the most popular cloud strategy in both South Africa and Nigeria, used by 46% and 36% of organizations respectively. Businesses operating in Africa are choosing hybrid cloud because it allows them to select the right cloud solution for each workload, avoid egress budget overruns and maintain control over their data.
5G adoption is slow for now, but the potential is undeniable
Mobile networks have long since played an important role in enabling digital connectivity in Africa. With the continent lagging behind other parts of the world in terrestrial fiber penetration, Africans have traditionally relied on wireless services as their primary means of internet access. That said, adoption of more advanced wireless services has been slow. According to TeleGeography, 4G subscriptions won’t surpass 3G subscriptions until the end of 2023.
Carriers have introduced 5G networks in some markets. These services are still very much in their infancy, with only a few million subscriptions in total. However, things won’t stay this way for long: TeleGeography also predicts there will be 350 million 5G subscriptions in Africa by the end of 2028. This means that a mere five years from now, businesses in Africa will have the transformative opportunity to take advantage of enterprise-class wireless services—a capability that simply doesn’t exist today.
Data from the GTTS shows that IT leaders in Africa recognize this upcoming opportunity and are preparing themselves to capitalize on it. A majority of IT leaders in both Nigeria (77%) and South Africa (62%) said that enabling advanced technologies like AI and IoT would be among the top benefits of a strong 5G network.
Businesses must make ESG a team sport
Business leaders around the world increasingly see sustainability as a top priority—both to meet the high expectations of their customers and stakeholders and to ensure they’re set up to deliver business value over the long term. Africa is certainly no exception to this global trend.
An effective sustainability strategy must address an organization’s impact across environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors. Addressing all three factors simultaneously would be a challenge for any organization; fortunately, African businesses don’t have to tackle that challenge alone. Going forward, these businesses will look for trusted partners that can help address emissions across their supply chains while also demonstrating leadership on social issues—like diversity and inclusion—and governance issues—like ethics and compliance.
African businesses clearly recognize the benefits of working with the right IT infrastructure partners to support their sustainability goals: A majority of GTTS respondents in both Nigeria (57%) and South Africa (53%) said they would only work with IT partners that can meet key carbon reduction targets.
XaaS offers both opportunities and challenges
Economic uncertainty, geopolitical conflict and supply chain interruptions are particularly prevalent to businesses operating in Africa. Companies are increasingly turning to Everything as a Service (XaaS) models to help them manage this complexity. Doing so allows them to increase business agility by deploying IT infrastructure quickly, without having to wait for delivery and installation of physical hardware. In addition, making the shift from CAPEX to OPEX can help them use their resources more efficiently and minimize their financial risk.
For all these reasons, it’s no surprise the GTTS found that 75% of IT leaders in Nigeria and 73% in South Africa said their organizations are moving toward an XaaS model. However, this is not to suggest XaaS is an easy answer to every business challenge. Even some of the African IT leaders who are planning to move to XaaS have concerns about how they can do so without increasing overall costs or opening themselves to additional vulnerabilities. The specific XaaS partners they choose to work with may make all the difference.
Bridging the skills gap requires a different approach
Business leaders in Africa are learning that even in the current environment of economic uncertainty, qualified tech professionals are in limited supply. The speed at which the tech industry is transforming, the growing need for specialization, and geopolitical challenges that prevent talent mobility are all factors that exacerbate the IT skills gap.
In light of these challenges, businesses operating in Africa often have to get creative to fill needed roles. In the GTTS, 74% of IT leaders in Nigeria said they’re reskilling workers from IT and other related industries, while 69% in South Africa said the same. Even after key IT roles are filled, businesses must build a company culture that keeps employees satisfied and engaged, and gives them opportunities to update their skills in an always-changing IT landscape.
New cybersecurity challenges arise
When it comes to closing the digital divide in Africa, businesses unfortunately have to take the bad with the good. Getting more people online and spurring greater interconnectivity will unquestionably be a good thing for the continent, but it will also create greater opportunity for cyber-attackers to do their worst. In the GTTS, both Nigerian and South African IT leaders named cybersecurity issues among the biggest threats to their business success:
- In Nigeria, 73% of IT leaders said cyberattacks were a top threat.
- In South Africa, 62% of IT leaders said security breaches and data leaks were a top threat.
With these numbers in mind, it’s no wonder businesses in Africa have made it a priority to invest in cybersecurity solutions that protect their digital infrastructure and data against threats such as ransomware, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and cyber-espionage.
Equinix is invested in Africa
At Equinix, we see Africa as a place of almost limitless potential for digital growth. We’re working hard to support that growth, serving both local businesses and multinationals looking to expand into the continent. It’s now been over a year since we first announced our entry into Africa via our acquisition of MainOne, a data center and connectivity solutions provider operating in Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. The acquisition was an important first step in our long-term strategy to bring carrier-neutral digital infrastructure to Africa, but we didn’t stop there.
In December 2022, we announced a $160 million investment to build a new data center in Johannesburg, our first entry into the South African market. We’re excited about the opportunity to support the growth of one of Africa’s largest and most digitally developed countries. When the new data center opens (expected to occur in mid-2024), both South African and global businesses will be able to scale their digital infrastructures rapidly, adopt a hybrid multicloud architecture easily and interconnect with thousands of business partners in the Platform Equinix® ecosystem.
To learn more about our strategy for the future of digital infrastructure in Africa and around the world, read the Platform Equinix vision paper today.
 “The Internet Society Pledges to Expand Internet Access in Africa,” The Internet Society, June 8, 2022.
 Pete Bell, “Africa’s Mobile Sector: Still Room for Growth,” TeleGeography, September 21, 2022.