[Interview] Africa Data Centres’ Wabo Majavu on local innovation the state of data centres in Africa

Wabo Majavu is the Executive Strategy and Business Operations at Africa Data Centres. Based in South Africa, Wabo is a leader and tech enthusiast passionate about: Girls in Tech, Energy and Sustainability and the Transformation of leaders in a digital era. 

In this interview, she talks about how local innovation and accelerated economic growth for a connected Africa will require: Diversity in our leaders, listening to the voices of our youth and securing reliable and sustainable energy sources for our digital infrastructure.

Africa Data Centres is the continent’s largest network of interconnected, carrier- and cloud-neutral data centre facilities. Tell us more about what ADC does. 

Africa Data Centres provides specialised facilities that host computer equipment supporting the growing demand for digital services from users to businesses and governments. We’re a pan-African digital infrastructure storage facility spanning East, West and Southern Africa. As part of Cassava Technologies, our vision is a digitally connected future that leaves no African behind.

Data centres provide the critical infrastructure required for global connectivity by being a storage and interconnectivity hub providing 24-hour reliable power supply, secure premises and connectivity to internet exchanges.

You were one of the speakers at the 2024 Africa Economic Summit. Why is it so important for us to have such gatherings on the continent?

Africa Economic Summit is the first annual summit to establish Africa as the frontier of global thinking addressing economic, cultural and social challenges while showcasing Africa’s infrastructure, business environment and diverse human capital. Africa as an emerging market has unique challenges paired with unparalleled opportunities and natural resources. My key takeaways were: How Africa can move away from aid to trade, the Importance of trade zones and the promise the digital evolution holds for every African child. I covered the crucial importance for Africans to understand data ownership and sovereignty for empowerment and control for maximum economic benefit from the digital economy to secure future generations as data is the new commodity in the digital age. Data fuels innovation, digital transformation and every connected user owns their data and can decide how to participate in the data-driven economy.

Your speech focused on the growth of the tech landscape in the continent. What are some of the key drivers of this growth?

Africa has the youngest population worldwide which implies the biggest population of users that are at the prime age for digital adoption – which in turn is driving various initiatives such as digital literacy, digital infrastructure rollout, telco drive to increase mobile device penetration, financial inclusion using mobile money to increase digital penetration in areas without access.

There is also an unparalleled growth in data as a result of the adoption of cloud computing by private and government enterprises across the continent. Cloud computing has increased the data flow and we anticipate exponential growth with the infusion of AI into most applications and web-based services. 

Lastly, leaders in Africa have identified digital evolution as a necessary enabler and accelerator to address economic advancements in all sectors of the economy. Technology is the ultimate equaliser for our continent to compete globally.

You’re also one of the leading female voices in data centre technology in Africa. What does the data centre market look like in Africa right now?

From the market signals, we can forecast doubling the current capacity in the continent within the next five years. From an investment perspective, we are looking at doubling a current market valuation of approximately $3bn.  And is projected to increase exponentially thereafter. There are however physical limitations in our environment that will impact these projections – including stable electricity supply, skills scarcity, political and economic factors such as currency fluctuations. The amount of investments required to grow the digital infrastructure in Africa requires Africa to source external investments which requires each of these limitations to be addressed to secure funding 

There is also a drive towards diversity particularly in markets where local government and customers set black female empowerment targets to be met by suppliers. It is therefore a fertile field of study for young female professionals as the Data Centre supply chain consists of numerous opportunities for engineering and IT female graduates.

A previous report from The African Data Centres Association (ADCA) and Xalam Analytic revealed that Africa needs 1000MW and 700 facilities to meet growing demand and bring the rest of the continent onto level terms with the capacity and density of South Africa’s claims. Is this really enough? 

The data points used in most of the analyst reports we use are GDP, population and digital adoption so we look at just those three variables I would agree with the report. However, the complexities of construction in different and extremely diverse markets make for better economics by building hub data centres that service multiple countries. For example, a data centre in Kenya can service East Africa and data centres in South Africa can service Southern Africa. From a capacity standpoint, the current MW in South Africa is not exclusively servicing South Africa 

I usually take inputs from market analysts and add a 3-6-year window to the projected timelines. In this example, if 1GW is forecasted to be online and operational by 2029 I would peg it at 2035. The complexities such as time and cost of land acquisition, import duties, manufacturing lead times of critical equipment, and skills availability are difficult to predict for different markets. Therefore if we half the prediction to cater for this uncertainty we start to see that it is not enough and definitely not soon enough to make the kind of leaps required to deliver on digital transformation promise to previously digitally marginalised communities.

Based on these digital demands, how do we build a future-ready data centre in Africa?

When building future data centres two main considerations are sustainability and power availability that is scalable to accommodate the surge in power density per rack with the evolution of data processing chipsets. 

There is a growing focus on sustainability in data centres with data centres setting a 2030 net zero target by reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to renewable energy sources. To achieve Carbon neutrality targets in the next 6 years, data centres in Africa require rapid implementation of legislative framework that enables the wheeling of electricity from solar generator sites to the cities where data centres are located. Utility-scale – solar farms are usually located on vast lands away from urban areas due to the cost of land, irradiation and electrical grid transmission capacity. Therefore to transport the electricity generated from renewable energy sources back to the end user, wheeling through the national grid is required and this in turn needs to be regulated through wheeling frameworks per city or local municipalities. Wheeling frameworks are required to govern the loading of the national grid with additional power generated from renewable energy sources.

South Africa continues to dominate the data centre market in Africa and according to reports, it will continue to maintain its dominance throughout the coming years. Why is every data centre operator running to South Africa?

South Africa is located in close proximity to sub-sea cable landing stations, connecting Africa to the rest of the world and has established enterprise markets. We are starting to see growth in Kenya, Nairobi and Morrocco and from current trends, we can expect that these four markets will be the hubs of the continent. The increase in demand from Nairobi and Lagos is expected to catch up to the trends we are seeing in Johannesburg. In the case of Nigeria, there is potential to exceed this based on population and rate of broadband adoption in previously unconnected communities. 

Africa accounts for less than 1% of the world’s co-location data centre supply, with South Africa as we said accounting for the bulk of the continent’s capacity. Should we expect a substantial wave of data centre investments to materialise across the continent this year from players like you and why?

Africa Data Centres is a leading pan-African collocation provider with a presence in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. Over the next year, we will continue expansion in West Africa with the construction of a new data centre in Accra. Africa Data Centres recently announced a partnership with Onix Data Centres in Accra to accelerate go-to-market in line with our expansion strategy.  In September 2021 Africa Data Centres announced acquiring a $500 million investment to establish data centres in ten markets. 

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