Expanding Digital Economies in Africa

Overcoming the digital divide in Africa will require investing in both digital skills and digital infrastructure

Martin Atkinson
Expanding Digital Economies in Africa

While 64% of the global population is connected to the internet, only 43% of Africans are.[1] This statistic is a clear illustration of the digital divide that’s hampering Africa’s economic growth.

The public internet is the de facto B2C channel of the digital economy, and it is simply impossible to build a thriving digital economy in any nation that lacks accessible and affordable internet access for consumers and businesses. Indeed, this is a major reason why the digital economies of African nations have traditionally been underdeveloped.

There are other factors in play as well, including a lack of digital literacy and rudimentary IT skills. We will explore these factors in this blog post, since they are all critically important to closing Africa’s digital divide and stimulating the growth of digital economies on the continent.

The public internet is the de facto B2C channel of the digital economy…

Africa’s digital divide: Where are the unconnected?

There are about 1.43 billion people living in Africa today. Since we know only 43% of them are connected to the internet, this means there are more than 800 million Africans who do not consume internet services at all. When we dig a little deeper, we can see that the distribution of this unconnected population is very uneven.

Number of non-internet users by African region:

  • East Africa: 357.3 million
  • West Africa: 245 million
  • Middle Africa: 149.1 million
  • North Africa: 90.2 million
  • South Africa: 22.3 million[2]

With South Africa having far fewer unconnected individuals than other parts of the continent, it’s no surprise that it also has a healthy and growing digital economy. By the same token, it’s unsurprising that many nations in East Africa and West Africa have further to go when it comes to developing their digital economies.

Visions for Africa’s digital future

Many African and international organizations have visions for Africa’s digital future that are ambitious, yet realistic. These visions acknowledge that bridging the digital divide will provide benefits that extend far beyond the economy: Increased access to internet services will also drive significant improvements in health and quality of life for all Africans.

By 2030 all our people should be digitally empowered and able to access safely and securely to at least [6 Mbps] all the time where ever they live in the continent at an affordable price of no more than [$0.01 per Mb] through a smart device manufactured in the continent at the price of no more than [$100] to benefit from all basic e-services and content of which at least 30% is developed and hosted in Africa…” - The African Union Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030) [3]

The World Bank Group’s Digital Economy for Africa (DE4A) Initiative defines the five foundational pillars of the digital economy:

  • Digital skills
  • Digital public platforms
  • Digital infrastructure
  • Digital businesses
  • Digital financial services[4]

These five pillars are not just a collection of vague, loosely related topics: They’re tangible assets that are highly interdependent. Their dependencies must be understood: Digital skills and infrastructure are the key enablers of digital services. Businesses, financial services and public platforms rely heavily upon them.

Digital skills and infrastructure are the key enablers of digital services…

Enabling digital skills and literacy in Africa

The relative lack of terrestrial broadband in Africa means that mobile networks provide the primary means of internet access for the majority of internet users. In a recent report from the GSMA, the global representative body for mobile operators, lack of literacy and digital skills ranked as the top barriers to internet adoption among mobile users.[5] Those most affected by this skills barrier tend to be poorer people, women, those living in rural areas and people over the age of 35.

As part of the DE4A Initiative, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) conducted a survey on demand for digital skills in sub-Saharan Africa. Based on this survey, the report provides estimates of how many skilled digital workers different African nations will need to train by 2030:

  • Nigeria: 28 million
  • Kenya: 17 million
  • Cote d’Ivoire: 5 million[6]

These estimates give a sense of just how big the challenge really is. Closing the gap between existing educational opportunities and future demand for digital skills will require strategic thinking and collaboration between educational institutions, governments and private businesses.

One example of what this collaboration looks like is the Equinix Foundation. This employee-driven initiative supports organizations that provide digital literacy training, technical career development and other programs to help bridge the digital divide in all the communities we operate in, including in Africa. Learn more about the Equinix Foundation.

3 challenges of expanding digital Infrastructure in Africa

The underdevelopment of digital infrastructure in Africa is a well-recognized challenge—one that many businesses and organizations are collaborating to help solve. However, the simple act of building more digital infrastructure in Africa won’t be enough. To truly fuel the growth of African digital economies, there are three separate infrastructure-related challenges that must be overcome:

  • Availability
  • Accessibility
  • Affordability


Africa is home to some of the world’s widest and most persistent mobile coverage gaps. According to the GSMA, there are 26 countries where at least 20% of the population lives outside a mobile network footprint; of these, 19 are in Africa.[7] It’s also difficult to make a business case for expanding coverage in many of these countries, for several reasons:

  • They tend to be low-income countries.
  • They often have substantial geographic barriers—such as mountains or other rugged terrain—that make building infrastructure difficult and expensive.
  • They tend to have limited or unreliable access to electricity.


Even in countries with better coverage, such as Nigeria, distribution challenges remain around middle-mile and last-mile network access and bandwidth. The Nigerian National Broadband Plan 2020-2025 reported that last-mile access is limited by insufficient terrestrial fiber. The plan also found that 2G mobile use is still prevalent, with low 4G penetration.[8]

However, 4G adoption is expected to grow rapidly in Africa. Statistics from the TeleGeography GlobalComms Database show that there will be 470 million 4G subscriptions in Africa by the end of this year, putting it ahead of 3G for the first time. The database also forecasts that the number of 4G subscriptions will grow to 730 million by 2028, while 2G and 3G will both continue to decline.[9]

Africa Mobile Subscriptions by Technology, 2011-2028

Source: TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database

There are multiple recent examples of countries that have used improved mobile broadband technology to quickly overcome a lack of terrestrial infrastructure. Going forward, we can hope the same thing will happen in under-connected Africa nations. The growth of mobile subscriptions and the continued rollout of more advanced 4G and 5G networks will play an essential role in making digital infrastructure more accessible across Africa.


Even after digital infrastructure becomes widely available and accessible in Africa, we will still have to account for the challenge of affordability. Today, both mobile data and mobile devices are out of reach for many Africans.

Despite this, there is cause for optimism: A 2022 GSMA report found that data is quickly becoming more affordable in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs) worldwide. According to the report, the cost of 1 GB of data is affordable (meaning it costs less than 2% of monthly income) in 56% of LMICs. In 2020, this figure was only 45%. The report also mentions that affordability of mobile data is increasing faster than affordability of mobile devices. Indeed, African respondents in both urban and rural areas were much more likely to name handset cost as a barrier to mobile internet adoption than they were to name data cost.[10]

One thing that’s limiting the affordability of mobile devices in Africa is the fact that local smartphone manufacturing is still in its infancy. The bulk of the supply has to be imported from Asia, which drives up prices. One report from the IFC and Google found that the price of an entry-level device in Africa ranges from $35 to $40. [11] In some African countries, this is the equivalent of up to 80% of monthly wages. However, mobile devices in Africa are expected to become more affordable as local manufacturing ramps up and structured payment plans become more readily available.

How to overcome digital barriers in Africa

While availability, accessibility and affordability challenges have a variety of different causes, the end result is the same for all three: They all prevent or limit the effective use of the internet for a significant portion of Africa’s population, which in turn undermines the growth of digital economies in African nations. The graphic below illustrates how these barriers can present themselves.

After overcoming the gap in digital literacy and skills, the problem of establishing effective digital infrastructure will be a much bigger mountain to climb. It’s a problem that we at Equinix are both familiar with and dedicated to solving, but it’s one we know cannot be solved quickly or by any single entity. It will require collaboration among numerous stakeholders, and it will take a slow, piecemeal approach to gradually overcome the many challenges.

To make this happen, we must establish a common understanding at the highest levels of government, regulators, industry bodies and service providers. We need all these stakeholders to acknowledge that, in addition to digital skills and literacy, the challenges of internet availability, accessibility and affordability exist in many African nations, and we need a mutual will to overcome those challenges for the common good.

Equinix is investing in digital infrastructure in Africa

Equinix operates 250 Equinix IBX® data centers in 70+ metros on six continents. We know from experience that the challenges described above may be especially pronounced in Africa, but they exist in different degrees in other regions throughout the world. Wherever they come up, we work to address them with the help of our ecosystem partners.

We first entered the African market in 2021, when we announced our plans to acquire MainOne, a leading provider of data centers and connectivity solutions in West Africa. Today, as an Equinix company, MainOne operates data centers in these key West African markets:

Equinix has already invested $350 million to help improve digital infrastructure in Africa, with an additional $390 million in new projects announced for the next five years. This includes our first expansion into South Africa: our new data center in Johannesburg, JN1, scheduled to open in mid-2024.

To learn more about the Equinix approach to building distributed, interconnected digital infrastructure—in Africa and throughout the world—read the Platform Equinix® vision paper.

Also, be on the lookout for a follow-up blog, where I hope to collaborate with industry experts to delve deeper into the common challenges that impact internet availability, accessibility, affordability and digital economic growth, and explore the underlying forces and tensions that cause them. We will look not just at Africa, but the whole world, including some liberally regulated markets with developed economies.


[1] 2023 Global Digital Report, Meltwater and We Are Social, January 2023.

[2] Number of people who do not use the internet in Africa as of October 2022, by region, Statista, October 2022.

[3] The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030), African Union.

[4] The Digital Economy for Africa Initiative, World Bank.

[5] The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report 2022, GSMA, October 2022.

[6] Demand for Digital Skills in Sub-Saharan Africa, International Finance Corporation, 2021.

[7] The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report 2022, GSMA, October 2022.

[8] Nigerian National Broadband Plan 2020 – 2025

[9] Pete Bell, Africa’s Mobile Sector: Still Room for Growth, TeleGeography, September 21, 2022.

[10] The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report 2022, GSMA, October 2022.

[11] e-Conomy Africa 2020 – Africa’s $180 Billion Internet Economy Future, International Finance Corporation and Google, November 10, 2020.


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Martin Atkinson Senior Manager of Peering and Interconnection EMEA
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