Big Data: Lights and Shadows of Africa’s Juicy Data Center Market | Future Planet



When the Diamniadio data center in Senegal was inaugurated, the country’s president Macky Sall said with satisfaction: “It is a great revolution for the digital sovereignty of our country.” And so that it was understood what he was referring to, he affirmed that he had given the instruction so that all the data of the Senegalese administrations housed abroad were immediately transferred to the newly released infrastructure. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that the data we generate with our activities in the digital environment has a completely physical dimension and must be stored in equally physical spaces.

As Macky Sall pointed out in June, the ability to store and safeguard such information in one’s own territory is one of the aspects of digital sovereignty that until recent years had not been of much interest to governments in the global south, due to a lack of awareness of its importance and the high cost of the necessary technologies. However, the shadow of Chinese tech giant Huawei in that same Diamniadio data center project demonstrates that demands for digital sovereignty go beyond the construction of a building and threats to privacy are of increasing concern to companies. civil societies.

The construction of data centers has become a priority among African governments in their policies of immersion in digital transformation. On the one hand, it is reasonable that States want to keep data in infrastructures located within their own borders, especially those that they generate and manage themselves. On the other hand, it seems an urgent need according to the data offered from Smart Africa by Lacina Koné, its general director, who assures that only 1% of the world’s data storage capacity is found on the African continent and that it should increase up to 10% in 2030. In February this year, the African Data Center Association (ADCA) and Xalam Analytics published a survey in which they indicated that 700 more facilities would be needed on the continent to match the level of resource availability in South Africa or India.

Only 1% of the world’s data storage capacity is found on the African continent and that should increase to 10% by 2030.

Nor can we lose sight of the fact that for the technology industry, the construction of these facilities appears as a juicy market for the future. According to an April report by ReporLinker, the African data center market will reach $ 5 billion (€ 4.423 billion) by 2026. And a couple of months ago it was announced that Africa Data Centers (ADC) has plans to build 10 high-capacity data centers in as many countries in the next two years. This operation would involve the investment of more than 500 million dollars.

Everything seems to be shining in the data center sector and, therefore, the Senegalese authorities proudly presented their new facilities for the storage of information generated by the State. However, some civil society actors have seen some shadows. The facilities have been financed with a loan from Chinese cooperation and Huawei has provided equipment and technical assistance for the project. And while the main argument of the data center speech concerns improving Senegal’s digital sovereignty, the controversial tech giant’s prominence raises concerns.

For example, Ababacar Diop, jurist and president of Jonction, an organization that defends human rights that shows special interest in the digital environment, states: “Precisely, the dependence on the financing of the Diamniado data center perfectly illustrates the digital dependence of our country. Digital technology is a field in which, if you cannot create and install your own systems and programs, you have no control over the installations ”. In addition, this jurist recalls the privileged position that the Chinese State can give, the information that the technology company can count on: “In fact, Huawei has access to the data and could use it for economic purposes to support the growing entry of China into Africa. . The economic and financial control of the African continent depends on the dominance of data and Huawei could greatly help the Chinese state by collecting data without the knowledge of the Africans. And the Diamniado data center will not be an exception ”.

For his part, a well-known Senegalese digital activist, Cheikh Fallapplauds the construction of the data center, but warns of a number of conditions necessary for the infrastructure to have a positive impact. “It is necessary that the technological solutions used can be dominated and controlled to prevent us from being more dependent on the software, after having worked and invested in the hardware”, He says in the first place.

As computer scientists we know that it is very easy to put a spy device on a computer. If someone gives you a computer or a digital infrastructure, you should ask yourself about your security and that of the data

Cheikh Fall, Senegalese digital activist

Fall compares the debate around funding to that which has been going on for years around donations of computer equipment. “Computers, printers,” says the activist, “and other materials from our administrations are, many times, the result of donations from certain Western countries. This has always raised problems such as independence from the infrastructural point of view. But there is also a question of security. As computer scientists we know that it is very easy to put a spy device on a computer. If someone gives you a computer or a digital infrastructure, you should ask yourself about your security and that of the data. Guaranteeing the safety of our tools means not accepting gifts from another country that may have interests in ours ”. Fall also recalls that threats regarding cases of massive espionage or data management have become real in Africa, both in elections and political campaigns and in the economic exploitation of personal information.

If anything, the Diamniadio data center example is just one anecdote in a much broader dynamic. For years now, the Chinese state has displayed its interest in strengthening its influence on the African continent through various and varied strategies. The technology is one of the most recent, but also one that shows the most projection. Precisely, coinciding with the inauguration of the Senegalese facilities, the South China Morning Post explored Huawei’s interests in Africa. With the explicit title “African nations continue to trust Huawei for data management,” he pointed out that the Chinese technology company works on 25 projects in Africa, in countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Togo, Tanzania, Mozambique, Mali and Madagascar. Without forgetting that it has already developed similar projects in Kenya, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ghana, Cape Verde, Algeria or with the African Union.

Arthur Gwagwa is a researcher who deals with the connection between technology and security and assures: “Technological success turns China’s political regime into a model to be imitated by other countries, discarding the model of democracy based on the rule of law and civil liberties promoted for almost a century by the United States. Huawei is now responsible for up to 70% of the telecommunications network in Africa and, therefore, is the only dominant player in the construction of the telecommunications backbone in the continent, subsidized by Chinese loans. Gwagwa points out that “African governments justify the acquisition of Chinese technology, because it offers a better alternative than that provided by the West.”

The concern stems from fears that China is de facto creating a future of technology-driven authoritarianism.

Arthur Gwagwa, investigator

“The concern is based on the fear that China is de facto creating a future of technology-driven authoritarianism, in which its technology transfers are purposefully deployed to limit the organic expression and development of nascent democratic movements,” he explains. Arthur Gwagwa; at the same time that it warns that not even its main opponent the United States has been able to demonstrate that China is violating any law in these transactions. “China has long insisted that it is only concerned with productive and fruitful economic transactions,” says the researcher, referring to a phrase from Huawei’s communication services: “Huawei provides technology to support smart city and safe city programs throughout the world. In each case, Huawei does not get involved in setting public policies in terms of how that technology is used. ” The fear, according to Gwagwa, is that “some of the Chinese exports are ‘dual-use’ technology and it is quite simple that the technology sold for commercial purposes becomes extremely effective in performing multiple functions, including military and intelligence” .

For this expert in technology, security and human rights, the threats in the export of certain systems by African countries is evident, but he remembers that “China is not the only country that exports surveillance technologies to Africa” ​​and that the passage of IT traffic across the US has given rise to what is known as “passive surveillance and electronic monitoring that fuels Silicon Valley’s data-driven business model without paying for it and also allows service companies like Google and Facebook to control the market. public ”.

From this perspective, Gwagwa and Fall agree on the fundamental role that civil societies play. “Creating a control system, alerting citizens about privacy and demanding more transparency in general,” according to Gwagwa. Fall adds that it is necessary to demand “that safeguard measures be implemented to protect the rights of our citizens and that work be done on the impact on human rights of all these dematerialization and modernization strategies.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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