Thelma Quaye

Thelma Quaye: “Smart Africa navigates through geopolitical competition by diversifying its partnerships and reducing reliance on any single geopolitical entity”

Thelma Quaye is the Director of Digital Infrastructure, Skills and Empowerment at the Smart Africa Secretariat. Her key activities include supporting governments across Africa to transform their economies into a digital one through the building blocks of digital infrastructure, capacity building and inclusivity through the empowerment of Women and Girls into ICT. Prior to joining Smart Africa Secretariat, she was the Chief Technical Officer at Airtel Ghana. She also worked with the ITU, UN Women and the African Union.

This interview is also available in French.

Smart Africa has become one of the major bodies mobilising multilateral action on digitalisation in Africa. What strategies have proven effective at getting African governments to work together, achieve concrete action toward digital goals, especially concerning cross-border digital trade and international infrastructure projects in partnership with the private sector?

Smart Africa is trusted at both regional and continental levels across Africa and acts as an aggregator. The organisation has employed several key strategies to mobilise African governments towards achieving digital goals, especially in cross-border digital trade and international infrastructure projects. One effective strategy that Smart Africa has used is policy harmonisation and regional integration, involving the creation of a common regulatory framework that encourages cross-border digital trade and e-commerce. This helps reduce barriers and creates a seamless digital market across African nations.

Smart Africa is positioned as, and focuses on being, the go-to organisation for cross-border flagship programmes to accelerate the digital agenda of the continent. Unlike Regional Economic Communities (RECs) which cover a wide range of topics, Smart Africa is specifically dedicated to digital transformation. This focus allows it to specialise and be more effective in this domain. We also prioritise projects that have a regional scope or impact, supporting countries in their efforts to implement projects with broader, cross-border aspirations. This allows countries to focus on both national and regional aspects.

Smart Africa utilises a multi-stakeholder framework, involving African countries, the African Union, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), African Development Bank (AfDB), the World Bank, private sector, academia, and research institutions. This inclusive approach brings together broad support and mobilises resources for cross-border digital trade and international infrastructure projects. Furthermore, each member country leads a flagship project, involving stakeholders from various sectors. This promotes efficiency, accountability and maintains agility while respecting the sovereignty of African countries.

How does Smart Africa manage the interests of private sector giants (such as telcos) and governments to advance the agenda to create a single digital market in Africa? What roles can/do regional economic communities (ECOWAS, ECCAS etc) play to facilitate this?

Smart Africa plays a crucial role in balancing the interests of private sector giants, such as telecommunications companies, and governments to foster a single digital market in Africa. The Private Sector Forum is a consultative organ with the Smart Africa Alliance that discusses matters related to the implementation of its initiatives. This forum includes a diverse range of private sector entities, fostering collaboration and ensuring their interests align with the Smart Africa agenda.

The private sector is also part of our main organs such as the Steering Committee where the private sector seats with ministers and the board where the private sector seats with our Heads of State to advise and share their expertise for inclusive decisions taken. Smart Africa emphasises prioritising private sector investments, especially in digital infrastructure, recognising their critical role in achieving a single digital market. As a matter of fact, we say private sector first in our manifesto.

Regional economic communities like ECOWAS, ECCAS, and others are instrumental in the implementation of Smart Africa's vision. These communities are pivotal in enforcing the guidelines, directives, and blueprints developed through Smart Africa's multi-stakeholder approach. Their ability to enforce these standards is vital for the successful realisation of the single digital market, ensuring that the initiatives and strategies formulated by Smart Africa are effectively translated into action at the regional level.

We observe a proliferation of data centres on the continent, one sources estimates that as much as 700 new data centres will be built in Africa over the current decade. What is your analysis of the situation regarding the question of digital sovereignty and local data ownership?

The estimated construction of 700 new data centres across Africa in the coming decade marks a pivotal shift in the continent's digital landscape, emphasising the importance of digital sovereignty and local data ownership. This surge in data centres is a significant step towards bolstering Africa's digital sovereignty, allowing for greater control over local data and reducing reliance on foreign data storage facilities. This is particularly crucial for sensitive information like government records and personal data, which necessitate protection from external jurisdiction.

The growth of data centres supports data localisation, where data is stored within its country or region of origin, reinforcing local data ownership, and giving African countries and businesses more control over their data. Economically, this expansion attracts investment, generates jobs, and advances technology, while also enhancing the efficiency of digital operations by reducing latency and data storage costs. In the same context, Smart Africa is implementing a project called Regional Data Centre and Cloud, where each region can have a centralised data centre that can interconnect with national data centres.

In conclusion, the proliferation of data centres in Africa presents both opportunities and challenges. By addressing issues related to digital sovereignty, local data ownership, and implementing effective regulatory frameworks, African nations can create a resilient and sustainable digital infrastructure that aligns with the broader goals of technological advancement and economic development.

What is your analysis of navigating the digital transformation of Africa within the context of fierce geopolitical competition between the US, China and Europe? How can African governments/actors exercise more agency despite the asymmetry of this relationship?

Navigating Africa's digital transformation amid intense geopolitical competition from global powers such as the US, China, and Europe presents a multifaceted challenge for African governments and actors. This competition, often manifesting in investments and digital infrastructure development, requires a strategic approach to leverage these dynamics for Africa's benefit. African countries can utilise the competitive interests of global powers to negotiate better terms for technology transfer and investments. Establishing clear, independent digital agendas and policies focused on national and regional interests is crucial for aligning decisions with developmental goals, free from external influence.

Key to this strategy is promoting regional collaboration through bodies like the African Union, Smart Africa, enhancing bargaining power and presenting a united front in negotiations. Smart Africa's focus on strengthening regional collaborations and supporting member states' national digital programmes suggests an approach of fostering regional independence and resilience.

By engaging with a wide range of international organisations and the private sector, Smart Africa navigates through geopolitical competition by diversifying its partnerships and reducing reliance on any single geopolitical entity. At Smart Africa, we are not trying to transform Africa into a single digital island but rather a single digital market connected with other markets in the world as well.

Based on your experience engaging with African member states, what is your analysis of the African position on issues related to internet governance, digital rights and data protection in international organisations? How can Africa’s voice be strengthened in these multilateral fora?

Engagement with African member states on internet governance, digital rights, and data protection shows a landscape marked by diversity and evolution. African nations exhibit varied perspectives on internet governance, influenced by their unique political, economic, and social contexts. This results in differing approaches, ranging from advocating for an open and free internet to prioritising state control for reasons like security and political stability. There's a growing acknowledgement of digital rights as human rights across the continent, yet the implementation and enforcement of these rights vary. Many African countries are developing or have recently implemented data protection and privacy laws, influenced partly by global movements like Europe's GDPR, and the Malabo Convention, but effective enforcement remains a challenge.

To strengthen Africa's voice in international fora on these issues, several strategies can be employed. Enhanced regional collaboration, particularly through bodies like Smart Africa, can present a more unified African stance on digital issues, leading to more coherent and influential participation. Capacity building is essential, encompassing training for diplomats, policymakers, and stakeholders in Internet governance, digital rights, and data protection. Active engagement in the formation of international digital policies through regular participation in conferences and working groups is crucial. Forming strategic partnerships with other countries, international organisations, and NGOs can amplify Africa’s voice, providing support and a platform for shared concerns. Promoting local research and data collection on internet usage and related issues can support African positions on the global stage.

African governments' position is to find a sweet spot between protecting African citizens’ rights including privacy, protecting the sovereignty and interests of African states while creating an environment that allows African businesses to grow and thrive through greater coordination and cooperation.

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).