Africa lags behind the rest of the world in internet adoption. Reasons for this include poor coverage distribution and the high cost of internet, and some of the effects are social, digital, and financial exclusion.
Cassava Technologies is one of many local and global companies creating infrastructure for fast, reliable, and affordable internet in the continent. The company built off the success of African mobile telecoms pioneer Econet Global, wants to increase internet access in Africa by building an expansive network of data access points around the continent.
Dubbed the “Africa Missing Network”, the project is leveraging the digital infrastructure backbone of Cassava Technologies’ subsidiaries.
“The intention is to make technology affordable and universally accessible across Africa and drive this vision of a digitally connected future that leaves no African behind,” president and CEO Hardy Pemhiwa tells Quartz.
Cassava Technologies comprises digital infrastructure and digital services brands, encompassing fiber broadband networks, data centers, renewable energy, as well as cloud and cybersecurity, fintech, and digital platforms. The businesses were originally part of Econet Global, a telecommunications group founded in 1993 by Zimbabwean Strive Masiyiwa.
Pemhiwa describes the “Africa Missing Network” as a “ubiquitous wifi network.” In 2020, Econet Global launched a network of wifi hotspots in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, and Rwanda to provide people with affordable internet access as part of the project.
Quartz spoke with Pemhiwa, who was previously the group chief executive and managing director of Econet Global for six years, about Econet’s reorganization, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, subsea cables, the data storage market, Cassava Technologies’ plan to digitally transform the continent, and challenges ahead. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why did the Econet Group reorganize its entities?
We just announced a reorganization of the group in November . The businesses that form Cassava Technologies go way back to 2004.
Our (Econet’s) heritage is in telecoms.
For the first time, a data packet doesn’t have to leave the African continent…Ordinarily, that traffic would have had to go to Marseille in France before it comes back to the African continent.
Our very first network business was the business we have in Botswana: Mascom wireless. We went on to build networks in Zimbabwe, in Kenya, in Nigeria, in Burundi, in Lesotho. And from that heritage, we then built fiber networks, built a fintech business, built a power business.
In November last year, we decided essentially to reorganize the group and keep the telecom business as Econet Wireless.
The Econet Wireless brands from now on really just refers to our mobile networks business. And Cassava Technologies now refers to our digital infrastructure and digital services businesses.
The digital infrastructure piece is Liquid Intelligent Technologies, which is our fiber broadband networks business. But we’ve got Africa Data Centres, and we’ve got Distributed Power Technologies. Those three form our digital infrastructure business.
And then we have our digital services businesses, which are built on top of that digital infrastructure, essentially leveraging over that well-invested platform. That’s our cloud and cybersecurity business, our fintech business—Sasai—and our digital platforms business called Vaya.
The thing that has been missing across Africa is really a ubiquitous wifi network that you find in most European cities.
The intention is to make technology affordable and universally accessible across Africa and drive this vision of a digitally connected future that leaves no African behind.
Driving Africa’s digital transformation
Cassava Technologies plans to enable Africa’s digital transformation. How does it intend to do this?
We’ve got just over 100,000 km of fiber today, literally from Cape Town, through every one of the cities in between all the way to Cairo [spanning 14 countries.]
But more importantly now for us is that we’ve got cables that cross Africa—East to West—from Port Sudan, all the way through Chad down to Cameroon to Lagos. And now from Dar es Salaam to Rwanda on the West Coast of DRC.
For the first time, a data packet doesn’t have to leave the African continent. We have interconnected Orange’s fiber network in west Africa to ours. That essentially allows any traffic that’s coming from any of those 13 countries that are served by Orange to now hit any of the eastern and southern African countries. Ordinarily, that traffic would have had to go to Marseille in France before it comes back to the African continent.
And we are connected to every undersea cable.
At a backbone level, that’s how we’re enabling digital transformation. But backbone is one thing. The challenge in Africa is always the last mile. You can have all the backbone that you need. But if the fiber isn’t getting to my house, if the internet is not available in my house, you can’t tell me about the information superhighway five km away from my village.
So that’s why we’re building what we’re calling the “Africa Missing Network.” The thing that has been missing across Africa is really a ubiquitous wifi network that you find in most European cities.
No teenager in New York or in London, or in Singapore, watches a Netflix movie on their Verizon or AT&T plan. They get into a Starbucks, and they’ve got a free wifi network.
And building this “Africa Missing Network” for us, is really what we believe is going to drive a digitally connected future that leaves no African behind.
So, it really is about three components. The backbone we already have built. We’re using free space optics (FSO) technology, which was initially developed by Google, that essentially allows us to beam fiber-like speeds for up to 10 km. In fact, now we can do it for up to 20 km.
So, if you think about what we’re doing in Nairobi, for example, where we’re beaming 20 gigabyte into Umoja. Once that point to point fiber broadband link is established, using FSO, we then essentially distribute it with point to multipoint wifi blanketing that area.
So, if you were to go into Umoja, or into Eastleigh, or into some of those places, where we’ve been testing, where we’ve been doing our proof of concept, you now have families that are routinely consuming 10, 12 GB of data every month, from less than a gigabyte a month, before we started.
And for us doing that and driving down the cost of access, to make sure that it’s more or less at this 10 to 20 cents mark, in terms of US cents, is what’s going to drive the digital transformation across Africa.
Women in Githurai were proudly displaying their carrots, their vegetables now on their Facebook pages. And for me, that’s digital transformation.
That’s what’s going to enable SMEs to come more into the cloud. And we have seen with the pandemic that no matter how small the business is, they need the cloud. They just couldn’t get an engineer to come and look after their server in the office. And so we have seen a huge uptake of cloud services, across the board, really, from two-person businesses to businesses that employ more than 500 people.
Africa and the fourth industrial revolution
Will this digital transformation work eventually help Africa leapfrog the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Yes. Because the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a couple of things. The access to the real internet is the foundational piece. And what do I mean by that access to the real internet? It’s not just about checking an email. It’s not it’s not about sending a WhatsApp message. It’s being able to sit there [having video calls], which most of our people have not been able to do.
I remember on a market visit in Kenya, where these women in Githurai, where we have built this “Africa Missing Network” were proudly displaying their carrots, their vegetables now on their Facebook pages. And for me, that’s digital transformation.
Importance of digital inclusion
You’ve mentioned projects in densely populated Kenyan areas of Umoja, Eastleigh, and Githurai. Why did you choose these places?
I always say that there are more people who live in Githurai than in Karen (an affluent Nairobi suburb). So I always laugh when companies say we have built fiber to the home in Karen. “Well, that’s very nice”. There are people there, but people don’t live there.
Same thing in Johannesburg. We can put all the fiber—and we have—that we need in Sandton. But all the people are living in Diepsloot, and in Alexandria.
And what is the biggest challenge in those places? You can’t get fiber in, because of the way that you can’t get wayleaves, It’s difficult for you to dig. You have to be smart about how you bring connectivity into those places.
So we have deliberately chosen those high-density informal settlements in Nairobi to trial this. Because if it works in Githurai, Umoja, and Eastleigh, guess what? It’s going to work in Limete in Kinshasa, in Alexandria. And we’re now starting to scale that in those places—in Lusaka, in Kinshasa, in Accra, in Lagos, and in Johannesburg.
What we’re really saying is, going back to our foundation. If you were to read the founding affidavit by our chairman in 1993, when he challenged the monopoly of telecoms in Zimbabwe, it was based on the principle that communication is a fundamental human right.
And so we continue to espouse that principle that if we can’t allow a child in Kibera during the pandemic to have the same resources—classroom resources—that [some children] are having access to, purely because they’re in a different geographical area, then we can’t we can’t sit in boardrooms and talk about human rights.
What are some of the challenges that you’re experiencing or foreseeing in this work to digitally transform Africa?
The challenge is we can’t roll it out fast enough.
(There’s) an interesting challenge that we faced initially in Kenya, when we launched for the first time and we said 20 bob ($0.17) per gig. People said, “Ah, this must be a gimmick. It means it doesn’t work.” Or “This must be a promotion that’s going to end once I have signed up.”
We said “No, you don’t sign anything. You download the Sasai app. It’s pay as you go, and it’s really up to you when you want to use your data.”
I think there’s a bit of the usual thing around education. But the fantastic thing is that Africans have shown that if you give them the tools and the tools work, and they’re easy to use, they will adopt.
If you think about the adoption of WhatsApp for example, even people that we, by global standards, we may have considered illiterate, are still able to download or have somebody download for them WhatsApp. And they know what they want to use it for. They wanna receive a message, they want to send a message, they want to speak to their loved one.
In terms of challenges, it’s been the traditional challenges that we have had to surmount. But given our heritage in telecoms and in mass market transformation, it’s things that we were prepared for.
Fortunately, I must say, regulation, which we thought was going be our biggest challenge, hasn’t been a challenge at all.
I think we have found regulators very open to digital inclusion, and really, almost laying out the red carpet to say “Look, if you’re going to go into these areas, where we have always been told that, it’s marginally, the economics don’t work, the unit economics of getting into these areas with fiber-like speeds don’t actually work, then by all means, get in there, and transform.”
Success for us looks like when people start to follow what we’re doing. Because we don’t think that we can do this by ourselves. I think it’s going to require a lot more capital from many other players in the industry in order to get it fully done.
The rise of data storage and data centers in Africa
Africa’s data storage market is growing. Investors are pumping money into it and data centers have been expanded. Cassava Technologies itself has Africa Data Centers, a large network of data centre facilities. What’s the importance of a strong data center environment for the continent?
Africa accounts for only 1% of the data center capacity in the world. That is miniscule. This is the second largest continent in the world—1.3 billion people. That’s why we are building data centers. We currently have nine data centers in seven countries. We’re building another 10 across the continent.
But really the importance is that as we start to build data centers in every city, you’re really bringing the internet edge closer and closer to the customer, and allowing access to the real internet and allowing businesses to really come on to the cloud without facing the latency issues that we face.
But also there is the issue of data residency rules. One of the things that African countries have faced. Yes they want to impose data residency rules, but the question is, if you say that data doesn’t leave, and you don’t have data centers, where is that company going to keep the data? You’re making it costly for a company to then establish itself in your market.
So building data center infrastructure for us is about bringing the cloud to the edge, which is near to the customer, but also reducing the cost of setting up businesses in Africa.
Because all of a sudden, if a Unilever or a Nestlé is thinking about establishing themselves in Togo, they now don’t have to worry about IT infrastructure. Because all that, they can rely on us to be able to provide them access to their cloud infrastructure, which is in Europe or the US or wherever it is, and yet allow their local operation to operate visually as if they were sitting in the same location as their colleagues anywhere else.
There’s a lot of investment in internet subsea cables too, and Liquid Intelligent Technologies, one of Cassava Technologies’ subsidiaries, has a cross-border fiber-optic network that offers connectivity to subsea cable systems that link Africa to the rest of the world. What’s the significance of the subsea cables for Africa?
Subsea cables are great. And I think they are reducing the cost of data. If you can believe it, it’s now almost half a cent, on the subsea segment, to carry a gigabyte of data.
But without our inland cable, the subsea cables are, I’m sorry to say, useless. Because you can have as much capacity as you like. All you can do is to land the capacity in Mombasa, or in Dar es Salaam. What happens to the guy sitting in Nairobi? You need to bring that capacity inland.
So for us this is an incredibly powerful endorsement of our model. We realized a long time ago that the real competitive advantage for us as Cassava Technologies was built terrestrially. Others with much bigger pockets will build undersea. But guess what, they will need us in order to access the continent.
So it’s a fantastic opportunity for us. It is additive to our vision of a digitally connected future for Africa. It continues to drive down the cost of data. And I think that the real issue for us is now that that undersea mile has been dealt with, the middle mile.
The first mile is the undersea mile. The second mile is the backbone mile, which we have built. The next mile is the middle mile, which we’re using FSO, and then the last mile we’re using wifi
So that’s how we’re driving down the cost of data. But making sure that that first mile of undersea cable is almost commoditized, and allowing us to get access to cheap internet at that level means that we can be able to pass on those benefits.
What is it like to be the chief executive of a digital services and digital infrastructure company in Africa today?
I think the real joy for me is when we can bring the internet to a hundred schools in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. And just the joy of these kids when open their laptops or their computers, and they type something and, almost like magic, there is an answer that comes back in their language. You can see the bewilderment.
Or getting—as we have done in Zimbabwe and Zambia—the Internet to some of these small dispensaries, where now a nurse is able to speak in real time to a doctor that’s in the city, send results of the diagnostics that they have of this passion and get advice. For me that’s really the high point of my day.
The hard parts are, we’re building infrastructure in the Congo forests. We were the ones that took fiber from northern Uganda into Juba. And all the challenges of putting fiber on that route, as you know, with insecurity.
But also the beauty of employing thousands of young people that would otherwise be unemployed when we build those routes In Congo today, we have 5000 young men and women that are digging this 2400-km fiber cable from Goma, hopefully to reach Kinshasa by the middle of this year. That’s what makes my day.
What are you reading for inspiration?
I have always read one particular book for inspiration. I think most of my inspiration is in the Bible. It’s amazing for me how relevant it is every day, I don’t know if you are aware, but the very first recording in history of division of labor was first recorded in the Bible—when Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, says “What you’re doing is not good. You actually need to appoint people that will look at smaller cases.” That’s a management lesson. That’s where I get most of my inspiration.
What keeps you up at night?
Our central banks are still very insular. If you go to the Busia border post (between Kenya and Uganda) or you go to Beitbridge (between South Africa and Zimbabwe), those people are not waiting for us. They’re not waiting for us but yet they’re waiting for us. They are trading every day, they are finding ways.
And I think the day that we can really allow cross-border informal trades that is enabled with Fintech technologies. If you were to wake me up at 3am, I am thinking about what would it look like, if I could bring blockchain to Busia and have those cross-border boda boda (bike) guys almost trading frictionless. Because that’s what they’re looking for. All this other stuff, they are bewildered by.
If you go to the border of Benin and Nigeria and you look at the number of trucks that cross and the number of the ways in which people have to carry currency. Technology can enable this. We just have to remove the non-tariff barriers and get our central banks to be a bit more outward looking and say look, there is technology now. Why are we stopping our people from trading with each other?
Anything you’d like to add?
The last thing that I would really [talk about] is Africa’s demographic dividend, which I think can really be turbocharged by technology.
When people speak about the fourth industrial revolution, I feel there’s been a lot of focus on the hard infrastructure, which is important. But even with all that, if we don’t have the skills, and we’re not skilling these young people for jobs of the future, then the fourth industrial revolution will pass us just like the other revolutions.
It’s an opportunity but it will be an opportunity unrealized.
I think spending time thinking about, how [to] make sure that these young people are gainfully employed and employable and are trained for jobs of the future, is really what’s going to make sure that there’s security across Africa. Because they become very vulnerable if we don’t do this.