Cina Lawson

Cina Lawson: “Executing a deal well in the digital sector requires thorough collaboration among many actors”

Cina Lawson is Togo’s Minister of Digital Economy and Transformation. Drawing from over 20 years of experience and expertise in digital policy and regulation, she has led Togo’s transition to an inclusive digital economy.

This interview is also available in French.

African governments want to work with multiple partners (public and private) in their digital development objectives and strategic priorities. How does Togo choose its strategic partners to carry out its digital transformation strategy, especially with regards to digital infrastructure and services?

To put it simply, we are guided by our priorities. First and foremost, we define our priorities, and then we look for partners with the required expertise and ability to execute, depending on which project we want to push. Let me give you two concrete examples.

In 2018, we started our cybersecurity journey by designing a strategy. Studies and reports have clearly shown the growing impact of cybercrime. We had to strengthen our cybersecurity, as a matter of urgency with the obligation to protect people and businesses in this technology-driven change era.

We passed laws and different decrees to provide our country with significant legislation for a coherent strategy to monitor and defend against cyberthreats at the national level, and we created the regulatory entities such as Togo’s National Cybersecurity Agency (Agence Nationale de la Cybersécurité – ANCy) in 2019. But our newly formed ANCy was required to rapidly establish the necessary technical framework for the constant monitoring and implementation of proactive defense mechanisms in response to cyberattacks. This required two critical pieces of infrastructure: a Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) and a Security Operations Centre (SOC).

Our vision was to operate these two infrastructures as a service delivered with high quality for the citizens, the administration, and the private sector. However, we did not yet have enough specialized human resources locally, technologies and processes to build and run these kinds of services at the quality and at scale that we desired. We did not want to only buy the equipment’s and trainings from a partner because delivering the service, is a different skill set that requires practice, understanding the commercial and technical aspects of it, and, most importantly, building trust.

Given our urgent need to make our newly established ANCy operational in the shortest possible time, it became clear to us that partnering with an established private sector player would be the best way to address our cybersecurity needs. We needed a broader partnership where interests were aligned.

We had been talking to Asseco Group, a partner in Poland, about digitalization of government services such as geo-portals and cybersecurity among others. Asseco Group is a leading NASDAQ-listed Polish IT firm— the sixth largest software firm in Europe—with over 25 years of software and expertise in cyberspace protection.

In 2019, we entered a public-private partnership with ASSECO to set up a joint venture called Cyber Defense Africa (CDA) to bring in the operational expertise in our cyberspace protection.

Our partnership with Asseco on CDA is unique in that it combines the CERT with a national SOC. It is also unique because Asseco is not only a technical partner but also an investor in the joint venture. This is to ensure that the joint venture is operated efficiently and profitably.

Infrastructure aside, perhaps an even more important reason for us going with the private sector and Asseco was for credibility. Working with a private sector player like Asseco, with its strong track record and prominent clientele such as NATO, instils the confidence and credibility that Cyber Defense Africa needs to function from day one.

Furthermore, we emphasized the importance of service delivery by ensuring that our partner Asseco has a vested interest in training our technical team—which is entirely Togolese—during their mandate of 10 years. The vested interest was expressed by being a minority shareholder and decision-making such as the CEO selection.

The second example is the landing of Google’s submarine cable Equiano in Togo, through a partnership that would transform our country’s broadband landscape. In March 2022, Togo became the first landing point in Africa of Equiano, a fiber optic cable running from Portugal to South Africa. The operationalization of this submarine cable is carried out by a Joint Venture (JV) between the Société d’Infrastructures Numériques (SIN), a public telecommunications asset company, and CSquared, a private open access wholesale broadband infrastructure company. The entity created, CSquared Woezon, is 56% owned by CSquared and 44% owned by SIN.

With the main objective, in 2019, to deploy a new submarine cable in Togo at the earliest, we were having conversations with both Google and Facebook, just before Google announced a USD 1 billion investment in Africa. We had to convince Google that Togo could integrate the Equiano project’s first phase, without affecting their overall schedule which implementation had already begun. In parallel, we had to work on developing a market for high-speed internet connections that is lucrative, compared to much bigger countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, etc. Our priority here was to partner with the private sector to accelerate the deployment of high-speed internet connectivity and particularly to ensure that the price of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) internet access drops by about 70% which would bring it within the reach of many Togolese households.

During the implementation of the project, we were faced with two major issues: i) the determination of a partner likely to provide financing alongside the Togolese state; and ii) the choice of a partner who was entitled to sell international capacity on the Equiano cable and to operate a landing station. We devised a clear partnership structuring mechanism integrating not only the State but also private investors. Like the cyber security deal, we would have a state-owned company which would be interested in operating the cable, but we also reached out to private companies, including all the wholesalers on Equiano for private investment, with a particular focus on the training of our teams.

CSquared Woezon is now responsible for the maintenance and operation of the Equiano submarine cable as well as the existing terrestrial fiber optic networks of the e-Government and the fiber on the high voltage network that links Togo and Benin. For the commercialization of international capacity, CSquared Woezon will provide open access to all national and regional operators on an objective, transparent and no-discriminatory commercial basis, in accordance with industry standards and international best practices. When activated, the Equiano cable will offer 20 times more bandwidth than any other cable currently serving West Africa and should enable Togo to attract even more investment and further stimulate its dynamic start-up culture. Equiano is an essential and strategic tool in realizing Togo's ambitious digitalization projects.

In terms of applications and platforms, our choice is to use open-source technology whenever possible to avoid vendor lock-in. We keep this in mind even as we continue talks with Estonia to establish an interoperability platform and work with the World Bank on a new biometric ID for all our citizens. We have been inspired by India’s experience deploying Aadhaar, its national biometric ID system.

In this larger digital strategy that you have explained, where does China, a strategic digital partner for Africa fit in with its offers in terms of digital infrastructure and digital services?

In the digital infrastructure sector, Chinese firms have been known to provide the funding and technical expertise necessary for network development. This approach has been beneficial for African countries, as they would not have been able to build their networks without Chinese involvement.

In Togo, we view telecom and digital as a service, and we believe that whoever operates the service should have a stake in the asset. Our approach to infrastructure deployment in Togo prioritizes collaboration with the private sector to de-risk projects and focus on service delivery, rather than taking on the responsibility of building infrastructure ourselves. While other countries and partners may have different business models, we prioritize identifying the specific project structure we need and searching for partners who can offer it.

For example, we obtained financing from the World Bank and partnered with India to develop our new biometric ID system. We are also working on a digital social registry for the country and taking inspiration from successful models in Latin America and the Middle East. We welcome partnerships with any country that can provide the necessary expertise and financing for our projects.

What are the best strategies to negotiate digital projects? Especially in terms of technology transfer, local employment and local content and data protection? Is there an internal strategy for this? Based on Togo’s experience, what would be your key recommendations?

One issue we have on the continent is execution. Deals maybe poorly structured not necessarily because that the people in charge are dishonest but because they may not know how to execute well. In Africa, we must specialise in checking the credentials of every person we hire and emphasise structuring a highly skilled execution team. Executing a deal well requires thorough collaboration among many people. There is no room for improvisation; a team of people with the right expertise in their fields is essential.

Secondly, in our view, knowledge transfer requires thorough operational training, and we need to consider this in the deals we enter with partners for national projects. In deploying the biometric ID contract, for example, we demanded a roadmap for knowledge transfer. We want the strategic partner to provide us with the job description of the Togolese who will work with their teams, and they must participate in the selection of these Togolese staff who will shadow them every step of the way. We want the trained staff to pass tests in every project component, so they get what we call objective certification. The certification must also be internationally recognized. That’s what we call knowledge transfer.

There are two other things: one is sub-contracting; the other is hiring of staff. It’s very important that our partners hire Togolese staff even at the management level. This requires that they hire Togolese first, but if they really cannot find a suitable Togolese candidate, then there must be a solid training plan in place so that in two to three years a Togolese from the existing team can grow into the needed role. You must be very hands-on as it is crucial to scrutinise the details of things to ensure that what partners are doing aligns with your vision. This can certainly be more demanding, but you cannot do without.

A final question about global digital governance. Africa’s participation in multilateral fora governing the internet and telecommunications world has been limited so far. What bargaining leverage for African governments in shaping the global discourse and norms on digital governance?

Well, based on what we have observed so far, it seems that the only way for African countries to have a significant impact in shaping the continent's future is through critical mass and leveraging multilateral organizations such as the African Union. It is clear that no single country can accomplish this alone. Some of the larger countries like Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya may have enough influence to make a difference on their own. However, the rest of us need to unite as a continent. The challenge here is that we often have trouble speaking with one voice due to disagreements between countries. When the larger countries take charge, they often only focus on their own issues. That is why we believe it would be beneficial for these larger African countries to reach out to smaller countries and represent them as well. For example, Nigeria could become the voice of West Africa. If we don't function this way and come together with an aligned agenda, decisions that affect us will be made without our input.

This interview is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships: interview series led by Dr Folashade Soule with African senior policymakers, ministers, private and civic actors to shed a light on how African actors build, negotiate and manage strategic partnerships in the digital sector in a context of geopolitical rivalry. The series is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships policy research project hosted at the Global Economic Governance programme (University of Oxford) and supported by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).