Lionel Chobli is the CEO of La Guinéenne de Fibre Optique (Guinea)

Lionel Chobli: “Geopolitical rivalries in the digital sector have repercussions at the local level in Guinea”

Lionel Chobli is the CEO of La Guinéenne de Fibre Optique (Guinea).

This interview is also available in French.

What is the digital development strategy in Guinea? How does this strategy intend to close the prevailing digital gap? How does this strategy fit into the wider African regional context?

Since 2002-2003, successive governments in the Republic of Guinea have devoted themselves to making investments and developing projects in the telecommunications sector and now the digital economy. After the unsuccessful attempt at a strategic partnership with TELEKOM MALAYSIA (2005), it was the arrival of ORANGE (SONATEL) and then MTN (South Africa) that reorganised the sector and gave it renewed momentum. Unfortunately, this dynamic was held back by the lack of investment by the South African group, which allowed ORANGE to become a dominant operator, even bordering on a monopoly in certain respects. For example, in terms of mobile network infrastructure, ORANGE has widened the lead over its two competitors to such an extent that in 2019 the state had to implement physical infrastructure sharing and mutualisation.

In terms of legislation, the government of President Alpha CONDE has, from 2010 to 2021, increased the number of reforms, including regulatory, competition and fiscal reforms, with the main result being a significant reduction in the cost of communications. Notable progress has been made in telecommunications infrastructure, as a result of heavy strategic investments, sometimes supported by innovative financial arrangements. The submarine cable of GUILAB (Société Guinéenne de Large Bande) - in which the state has a majority stake (52%) - and the investment of all the telecommunications operators and internet service providers approved at the time is an example. Established in 2011, GUILAB became operational in 2014, launching the era of high and even very high-speed broadband in Guinea. There is also the case of the national fibre optic backbone, an intercity telecommunications network carrying internet capacity to all 33 prefectures of the country, financed by a Chinese export credit loan (via China EximBank) worth USD 238 million for 4,300 km of underground networks.

Other projects, both public and private, continue to develop in Guinea and our company, Guinéenne de Fibre Optique, which is a public-private partnership between Electricité de Guinée (producer, carrier and exclusive distributor of grid electricity) and MouNa Group Technologie SA (the only Guinean company still operating in the telecommunications sector as an internet service provider), is an example. The State has been an active facilitator and supporter, seizing every opportunity to bridge a gap or an overlooked aspect of the backbone: the networking of metropolises and therefore access to the end customer.

It must be said that these projects effectively respond to the major challenge facing our states in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region: access to the Internet for the population, businesses and even decentralised and devolved public services. The much-vaunted, desired and solution-oriented digital world cannot do without quality and secure infrastructure. Regional projects exist such as WARCIP, financed by the World Bank, and its new variant WARDIP. Some institutions such as the African Development Bank, the West African Development Bank and the European Union also support connectivity development projects. UNICEF in Guinea has embarked on the fight against "illiteracy" by initiating a project to equip 18,000 digital classrooms in primary and secondary schools over 5-7 years.

Of course, the challenges of the continent: the proper formulation of projects, their structuring, the quality of negotiations with donors, the transfer of skills, maintenance and, above all, the availability of electrical energy, remain important issues. Beyond intentions and speeches, a country like Guinea is not yet in a position, in 2023, to levy taxes on a pool of 1,000 significant companies using existing digital tools.

What is the role of external partners in the development and implementation of this digital strategy? Who are the main partners? What is the role of China, which seems to be particularly active both in terms of supplying equipment and developing digital infrastructure? How does Guinea choose its partners according to the type of digital project?

Guinea's external partners have had little involvement in the formulation and implementation of strategies. If we consider the digital economy in the broadest sense, spanning infrastructure and services, it is noticeable that Guinean administration and private sector executives (as well as a diaspora rich in qualified skills) have always been very active and even jealous of their prerogatives. After mining, transport and financial services, the digital sector must be the one that attracts the most entrepreneurs and workers from outside Guinea. This includes public services.

The European Union, the African Development Bank, the World Bank Group and, to a lesser degree, the Islamic Development Bank can be cited as the leading partners in this field. Then come the private companies, both technical (Orange via SONATEL) and financial, which have considerably influenced the organisation of the sector through their lobbying and ambitions. Orange is today a global operator in Guinea, holding all possible licences, from telecommunications infrastructure to financial services, with a role and impact that is very important and even worrying for some nationalists.

Finally, China, through the financing and construction of the national backbone, has played a decisive role in Guinea. Most of the possibilities for the development of new infrastructure stem from a possible interconnection with the backbone financed by EXIMBANK CHINA. On the services side, HUAWEI has supplanted the initially more established ZTE and is taking over most of the active equipment and accessories supply markets for public and private projects.

Nevertheless, at the institutional level, the major investors and the American agencies and those close to the Atlantic axis (United Kingdom, Australia) have for some years preferred to decline the use of Chinese equipment for their projects. Political and economic rivalries at the global level, therefore, have concrete repercussions at the local level. One Internet service provider in Guinea was informed by a Western chancellery that it would not accept the provider's service if it uses any equipment from Chinese companies.

It should be noted, however, that the famous framework agreement between China and Guinea did not reserve the share that one might have expected for this sector. With a minimum amount of 20 billion dollars, focused on the construction of infrastructure in exchange for the extraction of natural resources, the framework agreement has had a considerable impact on the mining and energy sectors. One might have hoped that telecommunications infrastructure would have been the third pillar to support Guinea's development. In reality, many telecommunications-related projects have not yet been implemented. The inclusion of the sector in the framework agreement could have boosted the realisation of these projects such as the metropolitan fibre optic loops (complementary to the backbone), the development of digital terrestrial television (DTT), the creation of a proper government communications network, etc.

Finally, we should note the increasingly active role of multinational companies such as FACEBOOK, GOOGLE and NETFLIX, which are structuring infrastructure projects on a global scale by using their financial resources to reduce the cost of connectivity.

How are these contracts negotiated? What about the transfer of technology and skills in these contracts? What difficulties are encountered and how are they overcome?

The major contracts for financing and building digital infrastructures or providing services have until now been within the framework of bilateral cooperation. Whether it is the backbone concluded in 2014 and delivered at the end of 2020 (financed by EXIMBANK CHINA over 30 years with a 10% contribution from the State) or the current interconnection projects for all the universities, access to the negotiations is rather limited. What matters for the Guinean authorities is the result and for the Chinese, the assurance of exclusivity.

The difficulties encountered by SOGEB (the national company in charge of managing the national backbone) in the commercial operation and technical maintenance of the backbone illustrate the difficulties of cooperation in terms of training, after-sales service and sometimes the suitability of equipment choices.

Unfortunately, equipment from China is simply replaced in the event of an unknown or insurmountable problem by new equipment acquired in the West which the local technicians are more familiar with. Whether this is a strategy decided by Guinea or a rule imposed by the Western partners is anyone's guess. What needs to be considered in this regard is the lack of precision and follow-up on issues of after-sales service, repair and preventive maintenance.

Huawei seems to have realised this by recently strengthening its presence and 'Africanising' its technical teams with local and sub-regional skills.

There is a strong power rivalry in the digital domain, especially between the United States and China. African countries are also demanding more digital sovereignty. What is your analysis?

Power rivalry is very unevenly manifested in the telecommunications sector in Africa. Leaving aside the knock-on effects of American and Canadian, or even Australian and British, restrictions on Chinese equipment, there most confrontation is unvisible to the untrained eye.

In the infrastructure sector, China dominates the market with its unrivalled financing and execution capabilities. The US seems to have less interest in this sector, largely preferring energy and financial services.

As far as services are concerned, Western, Middle Eastern or even Asian companies and some pan-African groups are the ones competing: French (Orange), English (VODAFONE), Moroccan (Maroc Télécoms via the MOOV brand), Emirati (ETISALAT), South African (MTN), Malagasy (AXIAN), Vietnamese (VIETTEL) or Indian (AIRTEL). In the digital sector, particularly applications and payment systems, the USA and China are almost non-existent. The Chinese concentrate their efforts on physical telecommunications infrastructures (networks) and more recently and timidly on digital ones. North American companies are indeed more dynamic in investing in and developing digital solutions. Let's take the example of the digitalisation of customs, commercial and logistical services: no Chinese company has made a name for itself, unlike those from the USA, Europe and sometimes Singapore or Malaysia.

VISA and MASTERCARD, despite being very prominent and heavily advertised, remain fairly marginal insofar as relatively few Africans have bank accounts on the one hand and use bank cards on the other. There are large markets (Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa) where mobile money solutions are flourishing.

It seems that the control of telecommunications at the strategic level in Africa is another field of confrontation between the USA and China, hidden from view: communication satellites, intelligence, cybersecurity, the fight against maritime insecurity, etc. Information is, therefore, unsurprisingly difficult to obtain.

In this environment, and given the trends observed, it could be said that African states in general are wavering between indifference, vigilance and awareness. Some, for historical and/or strategic reasons, have nevertheless taken strong decisions and clear options, whether it be Egypt (resolutely attached to North American solutions), South Africa, which is rather proud of its independence and the freedom to weave its web with the partners of its choice, or Rwanda, which seems to be taking advantage of the new options available on the market for Africa (Israel, Turkey, Romania, etc.)

In Guinea, access to information related to security in general and cyber security, in particular, is limited. From the little information available and cross-checking, one can see a strong activity of American, French but also Russian, Turkish and Israeli companies. With France, the USA and China, the partnerships are more institutional than commercial.

What is Guinea's position on issues related to internet governance, digital rights and data protection in international forums?

Guinea adopted a Law on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection in 2016. It has incorporated most of the agencies for the promotion, regulation and management of issues related to cybersecurity, internet governance, etc.

Nevertheless, it is the internal implementation that remains problematic. The State is failing in its efforts to adopt implementing decrees, to set up authorities, notably those that are supposed to be independent or joint and to finance activities. The political situation that prevailed between 2020 and 2021 did not help matters, since the tensions linked to the opportunistic revision of the Constitution and the presidential election led to major violations of the law in the broad sense and of the law relating to telecommunications (major cuts in free access to services, opportunistic cuts to the Internet) and data protection. Critics have denounced the pressure put on operators, the misuse of data collected for biometric identification of populations in the framework of civil status or financial inclusion projects, and the presence of companies known for illegal surveillance of communications and citizens.

Overall, under the exceptional regime that has prevailed in the Republic of Guinea since 5 September 2021, the situation in these areas has eased significantly. Studies conducted by both ORANGE and HUAWEI show that the Guinean market has a minimum potential of 1 billion dollars of turnover for operators by 2030. It is, therefore, necessary to structure it to the best standards, to equip the territory with digital infrastructures and to promote useful services as well as those with added value. Cooperation, public-private partnerships and balance in the legal and financial structuring and monitoring of projects will be determining factors, with the training of local human resources being a crucial requirement.

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).