China has connected a high-speed, multimillion-dollar, 15,000-kilometer undersea cable to Kenya, as Beijing advances what’s been dubbed its “digital silk road,” and Africa seeks the infrastructure it badly needs for better internet connectivity.
Chinese giant Huawei is a shareholder in the $425-million PEACE cable, which stands for “Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe.” It stretches from Asia to Africa and then into France, where it terminates.
It reached the coastal city of Mombasa on Tuesday, with the CEO of local partner company Telekom Kenya, Mugo Kibati, saying the cable would help meet the sharp rise in demand for internet services on a continent where internet adoption has trailed the rest of the world, but which is home to a growing, young and increasingly digital population.
“This ultra-high-capacity cable will assist Kenya and the region in meeting its current and future broadband capacity requirements, bolster redundancy, minimize transit time of our country’s connectivity to Asia and Europe, as well as assist carriers in providing affordable services to Kenyans,” said Kibati.
For his part, the PEACE Cable’s COO, Sun Xiaohua, said in a statement that the new infrastructure would “bring more business development to this region.” From Kenya, the cable will later be extended further down the continent’s east coast to South Africa.
It’s estimated that 95% of international data flows via submarine cables, and in terms of Africa, China dominates, with the most projects aimed at connecting the continent. Aside from the PEACE cable, China’s proposed 2Africa cable will become one of the biggest undersea projects in the world when it goes live in 2024.
But China’s massive digital infrastructure investments in Africa and elsewhere have not been without controversy, and Washington has expressed deep concerns that Beijing is attempting to monopolize networks and possibly use them for espionage.
Some analysts are concerned the technology could be misused by authoritarian leaders on the continent, but Cobus van Staden, a senior China-Africa researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said most Africans simply want better internet.
“I think this PEACE Cable generally plays very positively in Africa. Obviously, the United States has raised … concerns around this, particularly in relation to security, but I think for lot of African countries, the security issue is actually balanced by the wider issue of a lack of connectivity,” van Staden told VOA.
Huawei was sanctioned by the U.S. under former president Donald Trump, but the company has built about 70% of Africa’s 4G networks, and van Staden said it seems China is winning the race for digital soft power on the continent.
“I think there’s a space there for competition, but Western actors will have to step up,” he said.