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A Digital ‘Scramble for Africa’?

by Zahid Jadwat

A digital ‘Scramble for Africa’ may be underway as companies compete to connect Africa. [Picture: ITWeb]


The 19th and 20th centuries were times of extensive plunder and exploitation in Africa. Independence movements led to a formal end of colonialism, but there are fears ‘digital colonialism’ is a similar evil, reincarnated.

Curiously observing maps of undersea internet cables, social scientist Jess Auerbach Jahajeeah noticed a “striking” correlation between the past and present.

The cables, she noticed, ran along the same routes used by ships to transport millions of slaves to and fro between Africa and the Americas.

The same routes were also used to lay the first copper cables which would become instrumental in advancing colonial endeavours, noted the associate professor at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town.

“Many of those routes have really important maritime histories. Many of them were also used by the British Telegraph Company in the 1800s to lay the first copper cables that started to connect the world and were absolutely fundamental for British colonial efforts around the planet,” she said, in an interview on Salaamedia.


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Digital colonialism

With the digital economy set to contribute just under a third of global GDP by 2030, American, European and Chinese companies are in stiff competition to connect Africa. Estimates suggest approximately USD 100 billion (R1.8 trillion) for good-quality internet access across the continent.

Despite heralding many opportunities, there are concerns it could usher in the Scramble for Africa 2.0.

“What’s striking now is that we’re seeing a huge investment in digital infrastructure; fibre optic cables in particular. But a lot of that is driven by corporate interests.

“We’re starting to see that there is a kind of Scramble for Africa again in terms of who gets to wire the continent and, to some extent, with that, who then controls certain aspects of Africa’s digital experience.”

But simply declaring the digital scramble would usher in a new form of colonialism was not possible, she suggested. It’s very complex because different countries have different levels of engagement and ability to call the shots.”

In a country like South Africa, she said, “we actually have quite good digital legislation and the ability to largely ensure that the kind of internet we get is working for us”.

This means there is a measure of protection against digital colonialism. “But,” she quickly added, “that’s not always the case across the continent.”

Of the continent’s 1.4 billion inhabitants, a mere 36% had access to broadband internet as of 2022. “To close the gap,” the World Bank noted, “significant investment is required to lay strong foundations for the digital economy and robust reforms to develop enabling policy and regulatory frameworks that encourage investment and effective competition”.

For now, though, a lack of connectivity means an opportunity for investment. For the most part, there is an emerging trend of external actors appearing on the scene to that effect. How the digital scramble for Africa might play out for its people remains to be seen.

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