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Africa in digital geopolitics and geoeconomics

Digital topics are becoming increasingly prominent in Africa's relations with its partners. On governance issues, the EU, the USA, and China are all aiming to attract the support of African nations for initiatives such as the Declaration for the Future of the Internet or the Initiative on Jointly Building a Community with a Shared Future in Cyberspace. They are also leading various projects to support the development of digital infrastructures across the continent. India has also placed digital topics among its priority areas for cooperation with Africa.

Read full report Stronger digital voices from Africa: Building African digital foreign policy and diplomacy.

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Digital geopolitics and geoeconomics follow the overall trend of a growing interest of foreign actors in Africa. This is illustrated, for example, by the increasing number of embassies opened on the African continent over the past ten years (Figure 53).

Embassies across Africa
Figure 53. Embassies across Africa, by guest country.1Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings. (2022). Foresight Africa. Top priorities for the continent in 2022.

Africa is on the eve of a further acceleration of its already fast digital growth and overall modernisation. Against this backdrop, digital geopolitics and geoeconomics will be framed around two main coordinates: (a) development cooperation and investment, and (b) digital governance.

Over the last few years, there has been a clear shift towards a greater focus on digital governance issues in the relations between Africa and other actors. The EU, for instance, wants to pursue, together with African countries, ‘a vision of an inclusive digital economy and society that is based on common principles’.2Council of the European Union. (2020). Council conclusions on Africa. Both the EU and the USA have outlined their value-driven digital governance approach in the recently adopted Declaration for the Future of the Internet. The same shift towards digital governance issues can be noticed in the relations between China and Africa. The Dakar Action Plan (2022–2024) on China-Africa cooperation includes clear references to African support for two key Chinese governance initiatives: the Initiative on Jointly Building a Community with a Shared Future in Cyberspace and the Global Initiative on Data Security.3Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. (2021). Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Dakar Action Plan (2022–2024).

Having in mind the strategic priorities of the main digital actors, Africa’s approaches to digital governance will be shaped around the following two extreme scenarios and various variations between them:

  • Integrated internet. This scenario would follow the current internet architecture, which enables the free flow of data across national and corporate borders.
  • Fragmented internet. This scenario would lead towards creating national and corporate networks that could coexist or be in conflict. 

In the search for their position in the fast-changing digital geopolitics, African countries aim to follow their priorities and avoid taking sides, for instance in the USA-China digital competition. The first glimpse of this pressure to make strategic choices was the Trump administration’s request for countries worldwide not to use Huawei technologies for their 5G networks. Most African countries do not want to be strategically aligned with major digital political powers. They are more interested in diversifying their technological base and strengthening digital governance by making tactical decisions based upon technology’s affordability and impact on society’s social and economic growth.

The following analysis of positions of the main digital actors should help navigate emerging digital geopolitics and geoeconomics in Africa.

1. USA

Relevant updates

US government launches Digital Transformation with Africa initiative | 14 December 2022

The US government has launched a Digital Transformation with Africa (DTA) initiative dedicated to ‘expand[ing] digital access and literacy and strengthen[ing] digital enabling environments across the continent’. The USA plans to dedicate over US$350 million to this initiative, which is expected to support the implementation of both the African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy and the US Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa. DTA’s objectives revolve around three pillars:

  1. Digital economy and infrastructure: (a) expanding access to an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure internet; (b) expanding access to key enabling digital technologies, platforms, and services and scale the African technology and innovation ecosystem; (c) facilitating investment, trade, and partnerships in Africa’s digital economy.
  2. Human capital development: (a) facilitating inclusive access to digital skills and literacy, particularly for youth and women; (b) fostering inclusive participation in the digital economy; (c) strengthening the capacity of public sector employees to deliver digital services.
  3. Digital enabling environment: (a) strengthening the capacities of authorities and regulators to develop, implement, and enforce sound policies and regulations; (b) supporting policies and regulations that promote competition, innovation, and investment; (c) promoting governance that strengthens and sustains an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure digital ecosystem.

The USA was a key actor in Africa’s digital growth. US companies and the tech community played an important role in providing the first computers and building the first networks in Africa. At that time, parts of Africa’s technical community received support from US-based technical community organisations, such as ICANN, the Internet Society, and the IETF. For decades, US digital actors worked with the European technology community to support the development of African ccTLDs, Internet exchange points, and other areas of digital infrastructure.

The dynamics of these early days of rather undisputed US influence started changing with the growing presence of China in Africa’s digital development over the last two decades. Since the Trump administration, there has been a shift towards ‘Chinese containment’ in US foreign policy, putting digital competition with China on the African continent into a sharper focus. 

As a recent analysis from the Atlantic Council argues, the USA cannot compete alone with China’s investment and commitment in the digital field.4Gadzala Tirziu, A. (2021). Partnering for Africa’s digital future: Opportunities for the United States, South Korea, and India. The USA is increasingly coordinating its digital approach towards Africa with the EU and its member states. For example, Finland and the USA announced in late 2021 a ‘deeper cooperation on digital empowerment in developing countries’.5Ministry for Foreign Affairs Finland. (2021, October 19). Finland and United States announce deeper cooperation on digital empowerment in developing countries. Press release. 

On the formal side, the first US–Africa Leaders’ Summit took place in 2014. Digital topics were not one of the main areas of focus. The business forum accompanying the summit, however, stressed the relevance of digital infrastructure. A second US–Africa Leaders’ Summit is planned for late 2022.6US White House. (2022). Statement by President Biden on the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. 

The U.S. Strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa published in August 2022 outlines a commitment to ‘drive digital transformation’ across the region and ‘foster a digital ecosystem built on an open, reliable, interoperable, and secure internet’. Focus areas for US actions and initiatives in the region include affordable internet access, digital skills and capacity development (in particular for youth), digital democracy, disinformation, gender-based online harassment and abuse, and standards for responsible conduct in cyberspace. Overall, the strategy puts emphasis on democracy and human rights, and countering Chinese and Russian influence.7US White House. (2022). U.S. Strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa. 

In the US digital policy towards Africa, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) will play a central role in developing digital infrastructures. Launched as a G7 initiative in June 2022, the partnership is expected to mobilise US$600 billion by 2027 in global infrastructure investments to ‘close the infrastructure gap in developing countries [and] strengthen the global economy and supply chains’, including through developing and deploying secure ICT networks and infrastructures. The USA has already committed grants of US$200 billion in the next five years to support PGII goals.8US White House. (2022). Fact Sheet: President Biden and G7 leaders formally launch the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. On governance issues, the US policy will be shaped by the Declaration on the Future of the Internet.

2. China

China is one of the most important economic partners for many African countries and the largest single country trader with the continent.9Mureithi, C. (2022, February 8). Trade between Africa and China reached an all-time high in 2021. Quartz Africa. Despite the global economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese direct investment in African countries has grown in 2020, according to the China–Africa Economic and Trade Relationship Annual Report 2021.10Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation and China-Africa Economic and Trade Promotion Council. (2021). China-Africa Economic and Trade Relationship Annual Report 2021.

Observers have suggested that in light of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Africa–China relationship, especially in economic terms, will become even more important. There are, however, also suggestions that a new Chinese policy of ‘Dual Circulation’, which describes a re-focusing of capital and investment inwards, might lead to reduced Chinese foreign direct investment and lending in Africa.11Paduano, S. (2021). Can China pull back? A balance-of-payments assessment of the decline in China’s overseas investment. In: LSE Ideas. FOCAC at 21: Future Trajectories of China-Africa Relations, pp. 7–10. 

China’s role in Africa is a topic of controversy. Some authors have suggested that China’s own experience in development is a source of mutual understanding and cooperation and that China’s focus on infrastructure investment has laid the foundation for further economic growth in Africa.12Brautigam, D. (2011). The dragon’s gift. The real story of China in Africa. Oxford University Press. Others have warned that China is taking on the role of a new colonial power in Africa. More recently, there are indications that some African countries are increasingly rethinking their relationship with Chinese infrastructure investments and are scrutinising or suspending contracts with Chinese companies.13International Institute for Sustainable Development. (2021, October 25). Chinese Investment in Africa Rises as Project Values and Bilateral Trade Decline. IISD News. 

The growing involvement of China in Africa’s digital transformation is at the centre of debates on digital geopolitics in Africa. For a long time, China has been boosting its digital presence in Africa from the bottom up, mainly through the development of telecommunication infrastructure. The presence of Huawei in Africa can be traced back to 1996. Most of the hardware infrastructure is financed by China’s Eximbank, with 50 deals between Huawei and African governments.14Hart, M. & Link, J. (2020). There Is a solution to the Huawei challenge. Center for American Progress. As of 2021, Chinese companies dominate Africa’s mobile infrastructure. Huawei and ZTE cover nearly 80% of Africa’s 3G mobile networks, 70% of 4G networks,15Gadzala Tirziu, A. (2021). Partnering for Africa’s digital future: Opportunities for the United States, South Korea, and India. and continue to lead the deployment of 5G networks. 

The Digital Silk Road (DSR) represents the major international framework for China’s foreign digital cooperation. The DSR is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and benefits from BRI’s infrastructural projects. This means that support for the deployment of digital infrastructure will follow major infrastructural projects of building roads, railways, and pipelines. The more recent Global Development Initiative, announced in September 2021, also has connectivity and digital economy among its priorities, although the overall goal seems to be about focusing less on building infrastructure (as it has been the case with the BRI) and more on broader development initiatives aligned with the SDGs.

In digital geopolitics, the Chinese market dominance over the deployment of 5G networks is a key concern. The first main pushback against Chinese market leadership, mainly around Huawei technology, was the Clean Network initiative of the Trump administration. However, no African country joined this initiative to ban the use of Huawei 5G technology (Figure 54). A 2020 China-Africa Project analysis argues that anti-Huawei narratives are not likely to succeed in Africa for the following reasons: cheaper product reliability and easy access to credit.16Oander, E. (2020). Why the US campaign against Huawei will fail inAfrica. The China-Africa Project. The Boston University Global Development Policy Center estimates that, between 2000 and 2020, Chinese lenders (banks, government entities, companies, etc.) signed 1,188 loan commitments with US$160 billion with 49 African governments, their state-owned enterprise and 5 regional organisations. In 2020, the ICT sector received the second largest amount of funding (after transport), worth US$569 million.17Boston University Global Development Policy Center. (2022). Chinese loans to Africa database.

Satellite technology is another area that contributes to the growth of China’s role in Africa. The StarTimes brand has spread across Africa to hundreds of rural areas, in the framework of a Chinese initiative dedicated to delivering satellite TV to 10,000 villages in Africa. In 2020, China completed the BeiDou-3 constellation, becoming the third country, after the USA and Russia, to have a satellite navigation system with global coverage. The BeiDou-3 Navigation Satellite System  (BDS-3) is used in the context of projects under the BRI in more than 120 countries and regions by some 100 million users.18CGTN. (2022, August 1). More than 120 countries, regions use China’s BeiDou-3 Navigation Satellite System. China’s satellite diplomacy is particularly active, through the first overseas BeiDou applications research centre located in Tunisia, and the delivery of training in Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco.

Use of Huawei 5G equipment February 2021
Figure 54. Use of Huawei 5G equipment (February 2021).19Sacks, D. (2021, March 29). Winning the 5G race. Here’s what the United States should do to respond. Council on Foreign Relations.

Over the last decade, China’s focus has gradually evolved from building networks towards knowledge transfer, cloud computing, AI solutions, and smart city projects.20Calzati, S. (2022). ‘Data sovereignty’ or ‘Data colonialism’? Exploring the Chinese involvement in Africa’s ICTs: a document review on Kenya. Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 40:2, 270-285. 

Chinese companies – Huawei in particular – are promoting the concept of smart cities, which have data at their centre. Cameras, sensors, and other tools collect massive amounts of data that is processed and used as input for public administration, transport management, fire-fighting, emergency management, etc. In this way, Huawei creates a holistic approach by combining 5G, data centres, and smart cities. Two projects follow this approach where data centres are linked to smart cities: Kenya’s  Konza Technology City21Moss, S. (2019, April 30). Huawei to build Konza Data Center and Smart City in Kenya, with Chinese concessional loan. Data City Dynamics. and the Zamengoe Data Center in Cameroon.22ASPI International Cyber Policy Centre. (n.d.). Mapping China’s tech giants: Cameroon Tier III (Design) Data Center.Alley, A. (2020, July 20). Huawei equips Cameroon Gov’t Data Center, helps Rain’s South Africa 5G project. Data Center Dynamics. In another significant development, Huawei provided equipment and technical support for the development of Senegal’s Diamniadio National Data Centre; the centre, which is expected to host data from all government agencies and state-owned companies, was financed with a Chinese loan.23O’Grady V. (2021, June 24). Senegal announces big plans for new data centre. Developing telecoms.

Although China dominates the telecommunications infrastructure and has an increasing role in the data field, China’s impact on content consumption is relatively limited. For example, according to The Economist, in April 2022 only 9% of Tanzanians watched China’s flagship news channel compared to 73% following the BBC.24The Economist. (2022, May 20). China, meet Fourth Estate.

Formal processes and official diplomacy between China and Africa

China’s shifting focus from technical infrastructure to data and applications is reflected in policy initiatives. In 2021, during the Dakar Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), China-Africa digital cooperation was put in the wider governance context.

On digital governance, the Dakar Declaration indicates a broader ambition to jointly shape the global governance of the digital space. The same paragraph that outlines Chinese support for African digital development also hints at African support for China’s Global Initiative on Data Security, launched in 2020.25Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). (2020, September 8). Global Initiative on Data Security. The initiative calls for an ‘open, secure and stable supply chain of global ICT products and services’ and takes a stand against states impairing critical infrastructure, using mass surveillance against other states, and including backdoors in digital products and services.26Embassy of the PRC in the USA. (2020). Global Initiative on Data Security. Upon its launch, the Chinese initiative was largely interpreted as a response to the USA’s Clean Network Initiative.27Ray, S. (2020, September 8). China launches own global data security initiative, targets U.S. ‘Clean Network’. Forbes. 

The Dakar Action Plan (2022–2024) further fleshes out points of cooperation. Noteworthy in the context of digital foreign policy, it includes: 

  • Infrastructure development (including the Pan-African E-network, cybersecurity projects, optical fibre cable backbone networks, cross-border connectivity, international undersea cable, new-generation mobile networks, and data centres).
  • E-commerce support (including Silk Road e-commerce cooperation, ten digital economy assistance projects for Africa, and a joint cooperation mechanism on e-commerce for trade facilitation).
  • Cybersecurity support and collaboration.
  • Active support for African capacity building in various areas related to digital and ICT.
  • Expanding practical cooperation in the internet domain.

The action plan also fleshes out further cooperation on global digital governance, such as: 

  • Strengthening dialogue and exchanges on internet laws and regulations.
  • Supporting the UN Cybercrime Ad Hoc Committee. 
  • African support for the Chinese initiative of Jointly Building a Community with a Shared Future in Cyberspace and the aforementioned Global Initiative on Data Security.
  • Suggestions regarding political support in multilateral forums (e.g. to ‘coordinate […] positions […] in the [ITU’s] World Radio Communication Conference’).

Comparing the Dakar Declaration with its predecessor, the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation Beijing Action Plan (2019–2021), the shift towards a greater and more detailed emphasis on digital governance is significant.28Forum on China-Africa Cooperation [FOCAC]. (2018). Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Beijing Action Plan (2019-2021).

This evolution from purely technical towards more digital governance issues was further shaped in August 2021, during the Forum hosted by the China Cyberspace Administration, when China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Deng Li outlined the China-Africa Digital Innovation Partnership Program,29The Partnership was announced at the “China-Africa Internet Development and Cooperation Forum” held on August 24, 2021. with the following main pillars for future cooperation:

  • Strengthening digital infrastructure, including fibre-optic backbone networks, cross-border interconnection, and new-generation mobile communication networks. The main focus will be on access in remote areas and ‘last mile’ of digital connectivity. 
  • Developing the digital economy through the use of cloud computing, AI, IoT, and mobile payment to promote Africa’s industrialisation process. This initiative should accelerate the integration of African information and industrial chains through cross-border e-commerce. 
  • Supporting education and vocational training aiming particularly at youth. Concrete projects include China–Africa distance education cooperation and support for African talents by Chinese companies.
  • Fostering digital inclusion aimed at ordinary people in Africa. Here the main focus is on the use of digital technology for transportation, medical care and finance, smart cities, e-government, and e-payment. 
  • Advancing digital security and governance. China invites Africa to participate in  the Initiative on Building a Community with a Shared Future in Cyberspace and the Global Data Security Initiative. China envisages cooperation in cybersecurity emergency response, internet laws and regulations, and formulating global digital governance rules.
  • Establishing a high-level dialogue platform for China–Africa digital cooperation and strengthening communication and exchanges with African governments and organisations such as Smart Africa.

3. European Union

The digital relations between the EU and Africa follow the overall economic, educational, and political relations between the two continents. The EU is one of the most important partners for African countries and the AU. Based on data from 2020, the EU as a whole is Africa’s main trading partner, accounting for 33% of exports from Africa and 31% of imports.30Eurostat (2022). Africa-EU – international trade in goods statistics.The EU is the source of the largest foreign direct investment in Africa and the largest provider of development assistance.31Reliefweb. (2021). Team Europe mobilises to support African economies.

In her 2019 A Union that Strives for More agenda, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a ‘comprehensive strategy on Africa’ and her first trip outside of the EU took her to the AU headquarters.32Herszenhorn, D.M. (2019, December 8). Von der Leyen ventures to the heart of Africa. Politico. Since 2020, the EU has pursued a path of strengthening its relationship with Africa. Reflecting this, the EU Council’s joint communication Towards a comprehensive strategy with Africa of June 2020 expresses the aim ‘to initiate a new ambitious partnership with Africa’. In this document, digital is listed as one of the ‘ambitious priority’ areas for ‘the next phase of the EU partnership with Africa’. 

The joint communication mentions ‘cyber security and democratic integrity, closing the digital divide, fighting data poverty, participating in digital trade, promoting digital for development, enhancing digital skills and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms online’, and stresses the importance of a multistakeholder approach.33Council of the European Union. (2020). Council Conclusions on Africa. At the end of 2020, the EU agreed on a new financing instrument as part of its external action, which has earmarked €29 billion for Africa over the period 2021–2027.34European Commission. (2020). European Commission welcomes political agreement on future €79.5 billion for a new instrument to finance the EU external action. 

In the digital realm, there are many interdependencies between Africa and Europe. Most of the data from Africa travels via underwater cables to the rest of the internet via landing points in Europe (Figure 55). European universities and technical organisations have trained some of the African technical experts. Africa may also choose to tap into the EU’s regulatory and governance experience and see to what extent it could adapt such experiences within the continent, as it advances with the implementation of its continental free trade area, with a strong digital market component. 

But some actors in Europe are concerned that the region has not realised all of this potential and left the space for faster growth of China’s digital role in Africa. This concern has been shaping the EU’s recent initiatives and activities on digitalisation and Africa.

Global internet map 2018
Figure 55. Global internet map.35Telegeography. (2018). Global internet map 2018.

Strategic convergences between EU and Africa

On a strategic level, there are a few convergences between the EU and Africa that could form the basis for future cooperation in the digital realm.

The first is a shared concern about the enormous power of big tech companies based in the USA and China. The EU has been using anti-monopoly, data, and competition regulations to ensure that big tech platforms do not distort the EU’s market. Africa is following this ‘battle’ in Brussels and may choose to take inspiration from EU regulations and approaches and adapt them to regional contexts.

The second common concern is about data as a personal and economic asset. More and more African countries are trying to introduce regulations to protect data. In the search for an optimal balance between free data flows and justified protection of data, African countries may rely on the EU’s regulatory experience developed around the GDPR.  

The third shared point of convergence between EU and Africa is a priority for multilateral solutions, which would protect core digital interests of nation states and shield them from bilateral pressure exercised by the major digital powers. The digital multilateral approach fits well in the overall focus of multilateralism as embedded in the new agreement replacing the 2000 Cotonou Agreement on the relationship between the EU and African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) countries. This post-Cotonou agreement places ‘stronger emphasis on cooperation in international fora and on building alliances on the global scenes’.36European Commission. (2021). Questions and Answers on the new EU/Africa-Caribbean-Pacific Partnership Agreement. The relationship between the EU and ACP countries is also seen in the context of broader multilateralism, and their working together at the UN.37European Commission. (2020). Q&A: Political deal EU new Partnership with OACPS. There are some differences, however, when it comes to multistakeholder methods. African countries are more inclined to the traditional intergovernmental method, partly because they lack the institutional and human resources required to follow multiple multistakeholder processes on digital policy.

The fourth common element is a drive towards digital/cyber/tech sovereignty by both EU and African countries. As many actors are in search of an optimal formula of digital sovereignty which will ensure integration in the global market while protecting certain national priorities, EU and African actors can share experiences in striking right balances and trade-offs around the question of digital sovereignty. 

The fifth area of convergence is the centrality of human-centric approach as often promoted by Europe and increasingly by Africa. The approach wants to put technology in the service of people, protect fundamental rights, and ‘harness the power of technology to find real solutions to the challenges our societies face, fighting poverty in an inclusive way that leaves no one behind’.38Vestager, M. (2020, February 28). Africa and Europe – partners for a human-centric digital transformation. Strathmore College, Nairobi. The human-centric approach to technology is perhaps best-defined in the area of AI and introduced in the EU’s Ethical Guidelines for Trustworthy AI, and has since become an important point of reference for discussions on the impact and use of (emerging) digital technology. 

In the next section, we analyse policy spaces and concrete initiatives that could convert the above listed strategic convergence into political and diplomatic realities.

AU-EU summits

From the perspective of traditional diplomacy, the AU-EU Summits are some of the most important arenas for shaping relationships, clarifying priorities, and agreeing on concrete measures. After meetings in 2000, 2007, 2010, 2014, and 2017, the 6th AU-EU summit took place in February 2022.

While the declaration of the first summit (2000) remained silent on digital issues, the second summit (2007) adopted the Joint Africa-EU Strategy and led to the establishment of the Africa-EU Partnership, both of which address digital issues. The strategy focuses on bridging the digital divide through harmonisation of policy and regulatory frameworks, investment in broadband infrastructure, and support for non-commercial e-services.39Council of the European Union. (2007). The Africa-EU Strategic Partnership: A Joint Africa-EU Strategy. The strategic plan originating from the third summit (2010) further fleshes out the joint strategy and, in particular, concretises aims in the area of ICT. Here, ICT is put in the context of socio-economic growth and sustainable development. Digital infrastructure is the main focus and the digital economy and digital literacy and skills development are mentioned as part of the priority action to support the development of an inclusive information society in Africa.40EU-Africa Summit. (2010). Joint Africa EU Strategy Action Plan 2011-2013. 

The declaration of the fourth summit mentions digital infrastructure and ICT in the context of development, growth, and human rights.41EU-Africa Summit. (2014). Fourth EU-Africa Summit. Declaration. The main angle of approach, as detailed in the summit’s roadmap, is through digital infrastructure, and also includes aims towards (a) ‘harmonisation and alignment of the appropriate aspects of е-communications policies and regulatory frameworks between Africa and the EU, including cybersecurity’; (b) connection of research and education networks through e-infrastructures; and (c) enhancement of ICT capacities.42EU-Africa Summit. (2014). Fourth EU-Africa Summit. Roadmap 2014-2017.

The joint declaration of the fifth summit in 2017 shows a shift of focus towards discussing digital through the lens of technological development and the digital economy. The realisation of opportunities in this area is envisioned through ‘exchanging on measurable ICT policy, legal and regulatory frameworks including cyber-security and biometrics’, investment in infrastructure, and mainstreaming digitalisation.43AU-EU Summit. (2017). Investing in Youth for Accelerated Inclusive Growth and Sustainable Development. Declaration.

In preparation for the sixth AU-EU summit, an AU-EU ministerial meeting took place in October 2021. After 2017, this was the second meeting at ministerial level. In relation to digital, the meeting agreed on facilitating investment and advancing ‘safe, sustainable, and inclusive digital transformation’.44African Union [AU]. (2021). Joint Press Statement Second AU-EU Ministerial Meeting. This meeting was followed by the joint AU-EU-ITU event Towards Digital Africa, which emphasised digital as a key pillar of the relationship between the AU and the EU.45Delegation of the European Union to the Council of Europe. (2021). Towards digital Africa: Accelerating the achievement of the sustainable development goals.

The sixth AU-EU summit in February 2022 saw the launch of an Africa-Europe Investment Package of €150 billion dedicated to helping ‘build more diversified, inclusive, sustainable and resilient economies’. Support for digital transformation efforts is envisioned as a key pillar of the package, with a focus on investments in infrastructure for ‘trusted connectivity’, affordable access to the digital and data economy, and boosting digital entrepreneurship and skills.46Sixth AU-EU Summit. (2022). A Joint Vision for 2030.

DETF and D4D Hub

The AUEU Digital Economy Task Force (DETF), initiated in 2018, marked a practical step in formulating digital strategic relations between the EU and Africa. DETF was created to provide a platform for cooperation between the private sector, donors, international organisations, financial institutions, and civil society. The task force’s 2019 report makes a number of policy recommendations: acceleration of the achievement of universal broadband access, digital skills training, supporting digital entrepreneurship through improved access to finance and business support services, and accelerated adoption of e-services.47European Commission. (2019). New Africa-Europe Digital Economy Partnership. Accelerating the Achievement of the SDGs. These recommendations are integrated into the EIB’s approach to financing.48European Investment Bank [EIB]. (2021). The rise of Africa’s digital economy. The European Investment Bank’s activities to support Africa’s transition to a digital economy.

The AUEU Digital for Development (D4D) Hub was initiated in 2020 as part of a wider initiative to improve coordination among member states and EU institutions. It focuses on providing capacity building for institutions to develop appropriate policies and development plans, facilitating knowledge sharing between stakeholders, and promoting dialogues between various stakeholders within the digital sector.49D4D. (n.d.). Supporting Africa’s digital transformation. The main challenge for the hub is to find the way to fit with other activities and funding under the EU’s Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument – Global Europe (NDICI-Global Europe).

So far, the main focus of the hub has been on digital regulation and governance especially in the data field. However, there are doubts over the effectiveness of hub’s activities in competing with the influence of China and the USA, mainly due to slow decision-making process, procurement rules, and lack of priorities.50Teevan, C. (2021). Building strategic European digital cooperation with Africa, Briefing note 134 by The European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) Maastricht. Some of these weaknesses are addressed by member states taking their lead in specific areas including Germany on data, France on connectivity/infrastructure, Belgium on development, Estonia on e-commerce, and Luxembourg on cybersecurity. 

Related projects are the African European Digital Innovation Bridge (AEDIB) and the EUAU Data Flagship. The latter will work towards a joint and non-binding data framework based on common principles, in particular with the creation of the African Single Digital Market in mind.51D4D. (n.d.). Eight innovative projects. Personal data protection and interoperability are key themes. 

While these and other partnership and cooperation initiatives continue to be implemented, it will take time for them to be assessed from the perspective of their effectiveness and overall acceptance by African stakeholders.

Cooperation in infrastructure and connectivity: Global Gateway Africa-Europe Investment Package

In 2021, the European Commission announced the Global Gateway strategy dedicated to supporting infrastructure development around the world. Within the Global Gateway, the Africa–Europe Investment Package was launched in 2022 to support Africa’s ‘strong, inclusive, green and digital recovery and transformation’.52European Commission. (n.d.). EU-Africa: Global Gateway Investment Package. Investments are envisioned in initiatives such as the deployment of a EurAfrica Gateway submarine fibre cable connecting the two continents, the construction of networks of fibre cables across Africa, and the consolidation of the Africa Europe Digital Innovation Bridge to support countries in strengthening their digital and innovation ecosystem and promote intercontinental cooperation.53European Commission. (2022). EU-Africa: Global Gateway Investment Package – Digital transition.

Worth noting is that the Global Gateway infrastructure investments are meant to be coupled with assistance for partner countries to ensure ‘the protection of personal data, cybersecurity and the right to privacy, trustworthy AI, as well as fair and open digital markets’. Moreover, the investments are to be aligned with ‘standards and protocols that support network infrastructure and resilience, interoperability, and an open, plural and secure internet’.54European Commission. (2021). Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the European Investment Bank – The Global Gateway.  

Initiatives in digital governance

Through the so-called Brussels effect, the EU is shaping global digital governance and regulation. The most prominent example has been the GDPR, which has influenced data governance worldwide, including in Africa. The GDPR serves as a blueprint and inspiration for national and regional data regulation. In addition, the regulation is also introduced in EU’s foreign and development agreements such as EU-ACP agreement. EU’s data rules are also supplemented by regulations on industrial and other non-personal data. Some aspects of the recently adopted Digital Service Act and Digital Markets Act relate to data protection as well.

In addition to data, digital governance cooperation can be further developed in the field of cybersecurity (the EU’s new network and information security directive), AI (the EU’s AI Act) and other regulatory areas where the EU has expertise and experience: competition policy, e-commerce, and standardisation.

4. India

Among the major actors, India is probably the closest to become a role-model for Africa’s digital development. In supporting this point, the Financial Times indicates similarity in the young population under the age of 25 (India – 50%; Africa – 60%). Another analogy is the growing gap between digitally savvy mega cities and vast rural areas.55Hruby, A. (2019, November 4). Africa should look to India for digital inspiration. Financial Times.

Thus, it is not surprising that digital has a high relevance among the priorities of the Indian government for cooperation with Africa. Digital health and telemedicine are areas where India is concentrating efforts in Africa. They build on an overall interest of African players for healthcare in India.  For example, the number of Africans visiting India for so-called health tourism increased from 5.4% of the total health tourist visit in 2010 to 15.4% in 2019.56Karingi, S. & Naliaka, L.N. (2022, February 25). The future of India-Africa relations: Opportunities abound. Brookings. Digital health initiatives focus on joint ventures in clinical research and educational programmes.

On e-government, one priority across Africa is to provide citizens with a digital identity as the basis for their full access to digital services. But digital identification is also a highly controversial issue, given the risks they pose for privacy protection and misuses of digital identification systems. Aadhar, India’s biometric digital identification system, is of particular interest for African countries. Experience from deploying Aadhar in India is relevant due to similar challenges that Africa faces, for instance in providing identity to rural populations often without digital skills and expertise.

Africa’s share in India’s foreign investment between 2017 and 2019 was 15%. It is interesting to note that 82% of this investment was routed via Mauritius due to its favourable tax regime.57Karingi, S. & Naliaka, L.N. (2022, February 25). The future of India-Africa relations: Opportunities abound. Brookings. 

India signed memoranda of understanding on cybersecurity and digital cooperation with the following African countries: Morocco, Egypt, Seychelles, South Africa, Kenya, and Mauritius.