How Econet is plotting to corner Africa’s next gold rush: data centres




Strive Masiyiwa

Like many people affected by Eskom’s load-shedding, I found myself thinking about technology and how authentic leadership can accelerate development and fight poverty in Africa and the rest of the world.

I pondered about how authentic leadership could keep the lights on and what it could do for the advancement of poor communities — not only my poverty-stricken hometown of Bethal, Mpumalanga. However, my hometown needs more than lights — it needs serious development intervention. It is a shame that development has not ensued given that the town is surrounded by many mines and power stations, and petrochemicals giant Sasol’s plant is just around the corner.

I have had a constructive chat with a Zimbabwean builder, Inquisitive* (not real name), who works in Bethal.

Unprompted, Inquisitive talked about his wealthy countryman, the billionaire and philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa.

“You see, my brother, I wish you knew Masiyiwa,” he said, “I tell you, with him as president, Zimbabwe would still be a beacon of hope in Africa.”

I told Inquisitive I was aware of Masiyiwa and his achievements as a business-person, but from what I knew he was best placed in boardrooms, not the political arena.

Unconvinced, the builder waxed lyrically: “Masiyiwa is the epitome of what a true leader should be. African politicians can learn a lot from him.”

I asked Inquisitive if he knew Masiyiwa had his eyes trained on opportunities beyond Zimbabwe and was trying to ensure that Africa is at the epicentre of the global economy.

“How, my brother?” Inquisitive asked.

I explained: “Masiyiwa is preparing Africa for a connected economy and is building data centres and fibre networks, which are an essential part of modern life.

Increase connectivity

“Masiyiwa’s Liquid Intelligent Technologies (Liquid) wants to move Africa to the ‘real digital world’,” I stated, paraphrasing Nic Rudnick, CEO of Liquid, a subsidiary of Econet Group, owned by Masiyiwa.

Liquid aims to increase digital connectivity and inclusion in Africa and support the region’s growing digital ecosystem.

“At the centre of the real digital world are data centres, which are essential in modern life. After all, we rely on the internet in all aspects of our life,” I explained.

“Everything that happens on the internet occurs in a data centre.”

All digital applications involving, for example, social media, the financial sector, online retailers, companies’ databases and healthcare applications are run at a data centre.

Since data centres form the foundation of the internet, they play a fundamental role in society and the digital economy.

The African data centre market was valued at $2bn in 2020 and was expected to reach $5bn by 2026, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 15% from 2021 to 2026, according to a report by Research and Markets.

THE NEXT GOLD RUSH IS TAKING PLACE IN DATA CENTRES IN AFRICA.

Masiyiwa’s companies are taking advantage of this gold rush and investing in data centres and fibre networks.

Liquid, the largest pan-African operator of data centres through its subsidiary, Africa Data Centres, aims to build 10 large hyperscale data centres across Africa, including Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.

High-capacity link

The company has secured $500m in equity and loans to develop data centres.

It also completed a fibre project, which connects East and West Africa with a new high-capacity fibre link running 2,600km across the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This week, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) teamed up with Liquid to support affordable broadband in Africa.

Strive Masiyiwa (far right), with Liquid CEO Nic Rudnick and Troy Reynolds of Tata Communications, 2016: Liquid is planning expansion across Africa

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Africa Data Centres secured $250m total equity and debt investment from the IFC to grow its hyperscale data centre capacity in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and SA.

The company is building one of Africa’s largest data centres in Nigeria.

Liquid is banking on benefiting from the continent’s growing population that is increasingly urbanised and data hungry.

Stephane Duproz, CEO of Africa Data Centres, says industries that are especially likely to be buoyed by the company’s expansion are the banking and growing fintech sectors, insurance and medical organisations, the public sector, and hyperscale cloud and content providers.

These industries, he says, are susceptible to data speed, security, guaranteed uptime and are exacting when it comes to reliability and trust in their providers.

The small, medium and micro enterprise market, too, he said, has found a significant opportunity for growth by plugging into the digital ecosystems that data centres provide.

Liquid’s investment will facilitate the further rollout of its fibre broadband network that already covers 100,000km of sub-Saharan Africa.

New opportunities

The organisation’s fibre infrastructure affects more than 100-million people across 643 towns and cities on the continent.

This extensive network will create new opportunities by making digital inclusion a reality for businesses and individuals across the continent and ultimately accelerating the ongoing digital transformation in Africa.

This is a colossal achievement by Liquid because the region requires 250,000km of new fibre to reach universal broadband, as stated by the World Bank.

So, clearly, Masiyiwa’s company has single-handedly created almost half of the goals set by the World Bank.

Just imagine what could be achieved if Liquid and Masiyiwa were supported by other cash-flush African operators to enable inclusive growth driven by fibre and data centres. Sub-Saharan Africa could generate the $100bn digital infrastructure required for the backbone of its digital economy.

Global firms have been playing in the data centre space. Amazon, Cisco, Huawei, IBM, Dell, Microsoft, Oracle, NTT, Vantage Data Centres and SA’s Teraco have invested immensely in it.

But what Masiyiwa’s companies are seeking is to connect every town to its fibre network and to its data centres.

Application creators

“We want a digital economy that ensures small entrepreneurs have the capability and are empowered to create new applications,” Rudnick recently said.

“We don’t want to see applications created elsewhere only to be downloaded from the app stores by African entrepreneurs. We want our company to be a provider of technology to enable Africans to be application creators and not downloaders.”

Inquisitive was suitably impressed, and I felt that my love for authentic leadership was not misplaced.

Authentic leaders are able to put the mission and goals of the organisation ahead of their own self-interest. They do the job to pursue results, not for their own power, money or ego.

Masiyiwa and his Liquid firm are keen on seeing Africa become a flourishing continent in a global economy. They are on a mission to digitise and transform Africa.

Masiyiwa summarises his mission as, “being an entrepreneur is not about making money, and it is about being a change agent, transformative change of our societies”.

Liquid and Africa Data Centres investments in the rest of Africa are creating transformative change. Africa should raise a glass to Masiyiwa. The continent needs a plethora of Masiyiwas, not moneyed executives who are preoccupied with buying yachts and showing off their wealth.

ALSO READ | Masiyiwa’s Liquid Telecom raises US$840m in bond sale for Africa expansion, debt refinancing

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BusinessDay