AfCFTA: The continent’s digital and cyber defence infrastructure remains insufficient for successful regional economic integration

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By Franck Kié, cyber security consultant, President of the CIberObs association and member of the Africa Club of the Economic Warfare School (EGE)

16 April 2021 – The African Continental Free Trade Area (or « AfCFTA »), which has been in effect for four months now, has a strong digital dimension. This should help accelerate the continent’s economic integration process through the promotion of e-commerce and digital payments. However, the digital and cyber-defence infrastructures of many countries do not, for the time being, allow for the success of such an operation.

Article 3 of the Agreement on the Establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area sets out the objective of « an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa as set out in Agenda
2063′, which includes increasing intra-regional trade, improving access to the African continental market for external actors and developing a ‘digital economy’.

One of the flagship projects aims to promote electronic commerce (« e-commerce »), in order to boost intra-African trade. Intra-African trade currently stands at around 15%, with a target of 52.3% in the long term, compared with 70% in the European Union (EU).

However, as the Secretary General of the AfCFTA, Wamkele Mene, recently lamented, « many [AfCFTA member states] do not have the necessary infrastructure to facilitate free trade ». This is particularly true in the area of digital and cyber security.

A low level of cyber protection and a still prohibitive cost of Internet connection
On the one hand, cyber security is relatively absent from the agreement and the various projects carried out by the FTAA Secretariat. However, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recalled in 2018 that most African countries are at the bottom of the world rankings with regard to their commitments and their state of readiness in terms of cyber security.

On the other hand, a majority of African populations (60%) do not have a stable connection, for a penetration rate of 3G and 4G of 25% on average, as recalled by the General Manager of Huawei Northern Africa Philippe Wang in the pages of La Tribune Afrique. The cause is financial inaccessibility fuelled by a lack of infrastructure.

On average, African providers charge 2.7 euros per gigabyte (GB), or 1,700 CFA francs, according to a study by British provider Cable UK. On an annual basis, this is equivalent to about 620,500 CFA francs, for an annual per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa estimated by the World Bank at nearly 3,000 euros, or 1.965 million CFA francs. The annual cost of an internet connection can therefore represent up to a third of an individual’s income!

This situation is due to the low level of domestic connectivity of African states, the most landlocked of which have domestic networks that are under-connected to the region’s coastal cities, which are better connected to international high-frequency networks. Hence the need to strengthen the deployment of cross-border networks – a dual factor in economic integration and in accelerating very high speed connectivity.

The Djoliba backbone and the ECOWAS regional cyber security strategy are steps in the right direction for West Africa

While Eastern and Southern Africa are among the continent’s best performers, French-speaking West and Central Africa are lagging behind. This has been partly remedied by the commissioning last November of the first West African backbone[1].

Developed by the operator Orange, the « Djoliba »[2] network combines 10,000 kilometres (km) of land cables and 40,000 km of submarine cables to connect the populations of Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal – a total of 330 million inhabitants. This initiative will increase tenfold the bandwidth used by individuals and businesses in the sub-region and facilitate their access to health, education and cloud computing services.

In terms of cybersecurity, the parliament of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) recently adopted its regional strategy for cybersecurity and the fight against cybercrime in the community. The objective is « to increase cyber resilience in the region and to assist Member States to strengthen their cybersecurity capacities, protect their cyberspace and critical information infrastructures, as well as to strengthen confidence and security in the use of ICTs and effectively combat cybercrime ». These examples show the willingness of sub-regional actors to move the continent forward on digital and cybersecurity issues.

It would be relevant for the FTAA General Secretariat, and for member states, to take into account its various initiatives in order to build a continental framework inspired by the continent’s best practices.

In a context where Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to Africa has fallen by up to 40%, the FTAA represents a real economic opportunity for African states and private operators. Its market of 1.27 billion potential consumers could lead to a 3% increase in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of most African economies according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The annual growth rate in the number of online shoppers has been close to 20% for the past four years – well above the global average – making e-commerce one of the potential drivers of this growth. But to realise this full potential, it is crucial to strengthen the continent’s digital and cyber-defence infrastructure – along with the rest.

[1] A computer network that is part of the Internet’s higher speed wide area networks.

[2]From the Mandinka name for the Niger River.

Source: Afrique IT News

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