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Digital infrastructure and standards in Africa: Continental and regional policies and their international elements

Continental and regional organisations across Africa have put in place various policies which include goals related to closing the digital infrastructure gap and achieving accessible and affordable connectivity. Some of these policies also include references to international engagement and goals the region should be pursuing in its international relations.

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


At the continental level, one of the Agenda 2063’s goals is to connect Africa through world-class infrastructure. This includes financing and implementing major ICT infrastructure projects so that Africa is ‘on equal footing with the rest of the world as an information society, an integrated e-economy where every government, business, and citizen has access to reliable and affordable ICT services’.1African Union [AU]. (n.d.). Flagship projects of Agenda 2063.

Digital infrastructure is also one of the pillars of the African Union‘s (AU’s) Digital Transformation Strategy, which outlines priorities and goals related, among other issues, to closing the digital infrastructure gap, achieving accessible, affordable, and secure broadband, and establishing and improving digital networks.

While many of the policy recommendations and actions proposed in the strategy relate to measures that governments should be taking at the national level, there are also references to international engagement and goals the region should be pursuing in its international relations.

For instance, one of the proposed actions is to attract major equipment manufacturers to install factories across the continent, as a way to ‘generate added value in Africa and ensure the long-term viability of telecommunications infrastructures, which are still very precarious, given the lack of a balanced financing plan for their maintenance, development, and renewal’. AU countries are also called to ‘work with international institutions, including the ITU, to adopt rules on the evolution of technologies, and more particularly the standards on equipment to guarantee the technological interoperability of one generation of equipment to another’. Working with international partners on boosting investment in telecom infrastructure is also envisioned.2African Union [AU]. (2020). The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa.

Continental and regional infrastructure projects and programmes 

Multiple projects and programmes are underway across Africa focused on the deployment/ enhancement of infrastructure or the strengthening of related regulatory frameworks. These are some of them:

  • AU: Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA). Adopted by AU heads of states and government in 2012 as a reference programme for regional and continental infrastructure development in Africa, PIDA includes, among other elements, ICT projects that aim to strengthen digital connectivity across the continent. 
  • Southern African Development Community (SADC): Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan. To be implemented by 2027, the plan aims to improve the coverage, reliability, and security of ICT infrastructure and to strengthen the ICT policy and regulatory frameworks to make more efficient use of existing infrastructure (among other goals).
  • East African Community (EAC): EAC Broadband ICT Infrastructure Network. The goal is to establish a cross-border broadband infrastructure network within the EAC.
  • Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD): Regional Infrastructure Master Plan (IRIMP). The plan is expected to help accelerate the region’s growth and structural economic transformation. Narrowing digital divides is one of the envisioned goals.
  • Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA): Master Plan2021–2025. Dedicated to advancing structural transformation and boosting overall economic development, the plan includes regional projects on terrestrial digital connectivity.
  • Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS): ICT Strategy 2018–2023. One of the strategy’s goals is to promote a harmonised and standardised ICT infrastructure across the region. 
  • Arab Maghreb Union (UMA): Broadband Optical Fibre Telecommunication Network initiative. Goals of this initiative include the deployment of broadband across the region and the harmonisation of regulatory frameworks.
  • Smart Africa: Broadband Strategy Project. A flagship project of Smart Africa, the initiative has as its final goal the development of a pan-African broadband strategy and a related action plan. (Smart Africa is an initiative bringing together 30 African countries, as well as various regional and international organisations and companies, to support the acceleration of sustainable development across the continent.)
  • AU: Policy and Regulatory Initiative for Digital Africa (PRIDA). A joint initiative of the AU, the EU, and ITU, the programme focuses on the creation of enabling regulatory frameworks to support, among other elements, the deployment of universally accessible and affordable broadband across the continent.

Across regional economic communities (RECs), there are multiple policy initiatives and projects that cover matters related to digital infrastructure and standards; several of them contain elements of digital foreign policy. SADC’s Protocol on Transport, Communications and Meteorology – which requires member states to develop harmonised telecom policies, infrastructure strategies, and technical standards – notes that states shall pursue their goals of achieving regional universal access to ICT infrastructure and services through participating in regional and international telecommunications forums. They will also promote international standards and participate in the work of relevant international bodies such as ITU and ISO. Moreover, member states agree to coordinate their positions on matters dealt with at all international telecommunications and other relevant forums.3Southern African Development Community [SADC]. (1996). Protocol on Transport, Communications and Meteorology in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Region. 

SADC’s Development Plan for 2020–2030 has among its strategic objectives the establishment of quality, interconnected, integrated, and seamless infrastructure and networks. Attracting foreign investments in infrastructure and ensuring alignment between regional, tripartite, continental, and international agreements ‘to ensure integrated approaches that optimise synergies for the development of infrastructure and services in the region’ are among the plan’s envisioned objectives.4Southern African Development Community [SADC]. (2020). SADC Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan 2020–2030. 

ECOWAS’s Act on the management of radio frequency spectrum asks member states to coordinate spectrum use at regional and international levels, and to respect ‘ITU international allocations’ when managing radio frequencies. A regional committee is tasked with discussing matters of international relevance in the context of spectrum management.5Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS]. (2007). Supplementary Act A/SA.5/01/07 on the management of the radio-frequency spectrum.

The fact that the importance of coordinating African positions to take in international processes is highlighted across these documents is encouraging. It signals that countries and the regional/continental organisations are acknowledging that speaking with one voice – as much as possible – at an international level offers them more chances to ensure that African interests are well represented and meaningfully considered. Actively encouraging such coordination and creating more opportunities for it to happen is a task that both RECs and the AU should pursue in a more consistent and sustained manner.

When it comes to digital standards, the African Organisation for Standardisation (ARSO) issued a 4th Industrial Revolution Standardization Strategy in 2021 (in cooperation with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers – IEEE), with the overall goal of harnessing the potential of technical standards to implement the fourth industrial revolution across the continent. The strategy highlights the importance of enhancing African representation in ‘global standardisation and technology governance environments’ and calls for active participation of regional stakeholders in the definition and adoption of international standards; the taking of leadership positions within international standardisation organisations; and the establishment of partnerships with international standardisation organisations to support capacity building in the standardisation field for African countries.6Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers [IEEE]/African Organisation for Standardisation  [ARSO]. (2021). Africa 4th Industrial Revolution Standardization Strategy (2021–2025). The extent to which most of these recommendations could be put into practice very much depends on whether the national standardisation bodies have the capacity and resources not only to follow international standardisation work themselves, but also to coordinate national positions with domestic stakeholders, and to encourage such stakeholders to contribute themselves to international processes.

Promoting African interests through regional organisations

Besides the institutions covered (AU, RECs, ARSO), there are multiple other regional entities (of an intergovernmental, technical, or private sector nature) across Africa that work on issues related to digital infrastructure, standards, and critical internet resources. Many participate in various international organisations and processes (ITU, ICANN, IGF, etc.) and could thus be considered vectors of promoting African digital interests at the international level. Examples include: 

  • African Electrotechnical Standardisation Commission (AFSEC) – dedicated in particular to the harmonisation of electrotechnical standards across Africa. 
  • Africa ICT Alliance (AfICTA) – a private-sector-led association dedicated to promoting the ICT industry’s contribution to economic growth and social development.
  • Africa Top Level Domain Organization (AfTLD) – an association of African ccTLD managers. 
  • African Network Information Centre (AFRINIC) – the regional internet registry responsible for the distribution of internet number resources, such as IP addresses and autonomous system numbers, in Africa. 
  • African Network Operators Group (AfNOG) – an avenue for network operators to cooperate and exchange information.
  • African Telecommunications Union (ATU) – facilitates cooperation between member states on telecommunications-related policies and strategies. 
  • Various associations of telecom regulatory agencies, such as the Communications Regulators’ Association of Southern Africa (CRASA), the East African Communications Organisation (EACO), and the West Africa Telecommunications Regulators Assembly (WATRA).
  • Local Internet Society chapters, often involved in projects and initiatives focused on supporting infrastructure deployment (in particular community networks).