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Europe’s Bet to Connecting Continents [Feature Article]

The European Union (EU) has recently said it will step in to foster Africa’s digital transition and adoption in a move that will not only drive business for existing operators on both the north and south sides of the Mediterranean, but also ignite a new wave of innovation and human talent. JSA Media Consultant João Marques Lima offers a closer look.

The EU’s chief Ursula von der Leyen explained that investment package of €150 billion will be directed towards helping Africa build its infrastructure and services, from digital assets to hospitals, schools, transportation, energy generation and more.

The scheme is the first regional plan of the EU’s Global Gateway, an investment blueprint that has the aim of deploying up to €300 billion for public and private infrastructure around the world by 2027.

The programme comes at a time when China continues to press ahead with its US$1 trillion ‘One Belt and Road Initiative’, designed to rearrange the global trading monopoly around Beijing’s interests.

The EU’s package is seen as a starting point, but trails back on the US$735 billion that China has invested in Africa by the end of 2020, according to the China-Africa Economic and Trade Relationship Annual Report published in September 2021.

However, Brussels has spotted a window of opportunity to regain some ground from China over Africa as nations across the continent are faced with “shoddy” Chinese products/infrastructure and try to fight back damaging contracts with the Communist Party which can ultimately cease land upon which infrastructure has been built – essentially expanding not only Chinese influence in the region, but physically enlarging China’s territory.

For instance, a Singapore Post article last year said some countries, including Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have in fact cancelled contracts with Beijing as the work of Chinese companies had become a source of tension for the ruling dispensations in several nations.

One of Europe’s main tactics here has been to listen to Africa’s concerns and, for instance, build the investment package around hiring Africans and directly benefit and contribute Africa’s GDP, thought for example, the creation of African-based manufacturing chains.

To that extent, Von der Leyen said that the Global Gateway project is rooted in “the values to which Europe and Africa are committed, such as transparency, sustainability, good governance and concern for the well-being of the people”.

She also said foreign investment in Africa too often came with “hidden costs” attached, hinting at the many hundreds of contracts between African nations and the Communist Party.


Africa’s Decade

With Africa set to become home to 42% of the world’s young population by 2030, and a prosperous post-Covid-19 pandemic economic outlook, the continent represents a clear path for European investment.

Details of the package are yet to be made fully available but we know that the Investment Package will be delivered through Team Europe initiatives: the EU, its Member States and European financial institutions will work together to support concrete and transformational projects jointly identified in priority areas.

The Global Gateway Africa – Europe Investment Package aims to support Africa for a strong, inclusive, green, and digital recovery and transformation by accelerating the green transition, digital transition, sustainable growth and decent job creation, strengthening health systems, and improving education and training.

On the energy front, for example, the EU intends to increase renewable energy generation capacity by at least an additional 300GW.

Von der Leyen said that now is the time to “turn our shared vision” into reality. 

“It is the time to become operational,” she said, and continued: “On Europe’s side, Global Gateway responds to this. Never before has Europe had a global investment strategy, and never before have we put on the table such a sizeable and ambitious package with Africa.

“These investments will go a long way to contribute to the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement.”


Digital Transition

A big focus from Brussels has been placed around building Africa’s digital footprint, to bring online for the first-time hundreds of millions of people as well as improve overall internet services.

According to the EU, nearly 300 million Africans are living more than 50 km away from a fibre or cable connection.

Some of the activities here will focus on the deployment of the EurAfrica Gateway Cable, an international submarine fibre cable connecting the EU with Africa along the Atlantic Ocean coast, and has been designed to foster the digital sovereignty of the two continents.

A secondary back-up connection to the Ella Link cable connecting Brazil to Europe via the African continent will extend the global dimension of the connectivity network and provide greater resilience against possible disruptions.

The EU has also launched the European Secure Satellite Communications programme aimed at providing internet connectivity to the African continent, in particular to remote areas and regions.

Elsewhere, the Global Gateway Africa-Europe Investment Package will scale up regional connectivity and enable the deployment of digital services, digital businesses and innovation by supporting construction of networks of fibre-optic cables across Sub-Saharan Africa.

These regional backbones will foster cross-border internet traffic and help bridge the connectivity gap between coastal and landlocked countries. The financing of fibreoptic networks will be complemented by measures to increase last-mile access, such as the densification of national networks.

Additionally, the Africa Europe Digital Innovation Bridge (AEDIB) Initiative aims to support partner countries in strengthening their digital and innovation ecosystems and promote intercontinental cooperation between stakeholders in Africa and Europe.

The ultimate vision from Brussels in this field is to establish a single market for digital innovation between both continents.

In terms of individual country tranches, not much has been released except for Nigeria, which is posed to receive at least €820 million until 2024 which will help enhance connectivity, digitalise public services, support entrepreneurship and build digital skills, while developing a human-centric, democratic governance framework for technology. 

The cash will also be used to support building fibre optic cables and data centres needed to improve Nigerian’s access to high-speed connectivity.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) will invest €100 million to expand 4G connectivity in Lagos and Ogun states and triple national data capacity.

The EIB will also invest €250 million to strengthen Nigeria’s digital identity infrastructure with the highest data protection standards.

“This is a new way of working together that can deliver transformative results on the ground,” von der Leyen said. “But it needs everyone on board to be successful: us political leaders, the private sector, and most of all our citizens.”

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