Is Africa Ready for Undersea Cable Projects?

Published on 26th June 2007

With the lowest ICT adoption rate in the world, Sub-Saharan Africa is still crawling to embrace proposed ICT projects expected to bring high-speed connectivity to Africa allowing the continent to engage in e-commerce and explore new markets. The projects are designed to fully entrench Africa into the global business process outsourcing arena like Asia and to create new jobs while facilitating opportunities for both African and international entrepreneurs. Successful implementation of the projects would also considerably lower international bandwidth. On notice are 4 fibre optics projects targeting Sub-Saharan Africa:

i.          EASSy (The East African Submarine Cable System) a 9,900 km undersea cable to stretch from South Africa all the way to Sudan.

ii.        TEAMS (The East African Marine System) to run from Fujairah in the UAE to Mombasa in Kenya.

iii.       RELIANCE (The Kenya Data Network Cable) to provide a link between Yemen, Mombasa and later South Africa,

iv.        SEACOM marine cable system to provide connectivity between South Africa, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, India and Europe.

On paper, all the proposed cable projects look promising if implemented. However, wrangling over ownership, management and self seeking motives has forced key project players to commission parallel projects. Kenya and South Africa have had the most conflicting opinions about the initial NEPAD backed inter-governmental East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy) project that was to connect countries of Eastern and Southern Africa via a fiber optic cable system to the rest of the world and NBIN (NEPAD Broadband Infrastructure Network), which was to create a terrestrial link running from South Africa to Kigali, Rwanda.

Rwanda has officially ratified the EASSy protocol

Twenty three African countries had proposed the creation of the EASSy’s memorandum of understanding during its initiation stage. Only 11 have signed the protocol with only one country: Rwanda officially ratifying the project. Countries that signed the protocol include Uganda, Rwanda, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Mauritius, Tanzania and South Africa.

From the onset, Kenya was a key player in the EASSy project but all pointers show that the project is not among its list of priorities. Last year, the Kenyan cabinet approved another similar project The East African Marine System (TEAMS) allocated it Kshs. 1bn in its yearly financial budget for the year 2007/8. Again, Kenya will not sign the Policy and Regulatory Framework for NEPAD ICT Broadband Infrastructure protocol until a clause on Inter-Governmental Authority was removed.

On 19th of June 2007, South Africa appeared to be solidly behind EASSy and NBIN when its parliamentary committee on communications approved the projects, which will bind the country to its provisions after official ratification by parliament’s main house.

New problems emerge for Kenyan backed teams

Kenya began talks with Etilsat, its Middle East partner in TEAMS, to resolve differences over shareholding structure. The initial arrangement would allow Etilsat to own 20 percent of the project with the Kenyan Government taking 40 percent. The remaining stake of 40 percent was to be allocated to the private sector to which Etilsat is opposed, insisting it be allocated a 40 percent shareholding stake. Kenya looks committed to this project but is not ready to give up its ownership by “selling everything” to foreign investors. In the initial set up, the player with 40 per cent would hold the controlling stake in the US$110 million fibre optic cable project, to connect Mombasa in Kenya and Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. But the new demands by Etilsat may further delay this project if not handled carefully.

Africa to emerge the net loser

Sub-Saharan Africa will be the net loser owing to the cloudy prospects attributed to delays and confusion in laying of the several cable systems. If indeed African governments that initially endorsed the EASSy project were keen on its implementation, then arising situations need not to have been brought to the fore.  International cable system such as FLAG (touted as the largest privately owned cable system in the world) will quickly render efforts of EASSy, TEAMS, RELIANCE and SEACOM unviable if they are not complementary to each other. FLAG hopes to connect the Kenyan coast to its network in the Gulf region and later link South Africa to Kenya via Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar and Mauritius.

There is definitely competition for business in the growing African market but questions still linger on the commercial viability and sustainability of deploying two or more similar project in the same region. In the same context given that only Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya (whichever project they support) appear keen to create undersea cables to serve ICT needs in Sub-Saharan Africa what’s with the rest of Africa?

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