How will Togo make the most of managing Google’s Equiano cable?

Last week, Togo became the first African country to land Equiano, Google’s subsea internet cable for Africa. The cable, which is part of the tech giant’s $1 billion investment in Africa, will land in Nigeria, Namibia, and South Africa later this year.

What good will it do for Togo, a country of 8 million people?

An economic impact assessment commissioned by Google says Equiano will add $351 million to the west African country’s economic output by 2025, and create nearly 37,000 jobs. Retail prices for accessing the internet are expected to reduce by 14%.

But merely landing the cable will not achieve these expected results. Quartz spoke with Cina Lawson, Togo’s minister for digital economy and digital transformation to find out how her government plans to do the work necessary to maximize the value of Equiano. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How important is infrastructure as a foundation for building a digital economy?

Our roadmap for development in Togo identifies 42 projects and three-fourths of them have a digital component.

Based on that, the ministry of digital economy decided to work on a digital strategy which has three main axes, and the first is to have digital infrastructure. That means we need to have mobile and fixed internet connections. African countries have all sorts of development needs, like health insurance for example. But when you are 18, what you want is really strong internet connection, and you need fiber optics for that.

Our cost effective strategy is to deploy fiber infrastructure on power lines. One of the costs in deploying fiber is digging the ground and burying the cable deep. Instead of doing that, we will deploy the cables on poles that host electric lines. Imagine when you tell a resident that you will give them high speed internet with their electricity at affordable prices.

That’s our vision in terms of infrastructure foundation, and we want to do this now. I am absolutely sure it is what needs to be done and if we don’t do it today, we’ll still need to do it 10 years from now.

But we’ll be late as a continent and behind everybody. I don’t want to be behind. All we need over time is to increase the lasers that activate the fiber so it doesn’t become obsolete.

Is your plan of bundling power with fiber connections already happening?

It’s already happening, and let me back up a bit.

Google’s Equiano will be managed by a joint venture between CSquared, and Société d’Infrastructures Numériques (SIN), Togo’s public telecoms company. CSquared is owned by Google, the International Finance Corporation, Convergent Partners, and Mitsui.

Now, the JV, called CSquared Woezon, will manage the landing station for the Equiano cable, but also manage fiber optics on high-voltage power lines that connect Togo to its neighboring countries — Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Benin. The JV will also manage the eGov network. In our capital city Lome, we have connected 560 public buildings, including in the University of Lome, to fiber optics. We are talking with lenders to raise €300 million to put fiber on all electrical lines.

What parts of Togo will this combination of internet and power be available?

It will be across the country. Togo has approximately 1.2 million households. If we deploy our plan, at least 500,000 households and 50,000 enterprises will be connected to fiber optic networks. So I am talking about one vision that will transform all of Togo.

Only about two thirds of Togo is covered by 3G, according to the GSM Association. What will Equiano do for internet access in Togo?

In 2019, we started asking all telcos to convert their 3G networks into 4G. While that is in progress, Equiano will change the quality of service and pricing.

Before Equiano, the only other cable landing in Togo was the West Africa Cable System (WACS) in 2012, but Equiano is our most advanced to date. In order to improve the quality of service for mobile networks, we need to connect mobile towers to fiber. Equiano will give us stronger signal quality. And then it will lower prices because internet service providers now have an alternative to WACS.

Will it help build a tech startup ecosystem like the one in Nigeria?

In order for an ecosystem to happen, I need to deliver on infrastructure and bring companies to Togo. So I am very hopeful that our relationship with Google will enable them to come to Togo and finance a few entrepreneurs, and start this ecosystem.

But we have an issue in terms of training young entrepreneurs. A few tech hubs are in the works, and I am hoping that when the cable becomes operational, we will be able to show more of what we are doing for the entrepreneurs.

Is Equiano the ultimate infrastructure project that changes the game, or are there still gaps that Togo needs to invest in filling?

Yes we still have gaps. Equiano gives us international capacity. It’s like bringing a pipe to the beach, but ensuring households have internet requires additional investments. That’s the phase that will see us host fiber optics on power lines.

And will this last-mile phase be done by the government or the private sector?

It will be a combination of both. While there are different models for deploying fiber in the world, we have to bear in mind that in Africa we have affordability issues.

So we want to de-risk the project as the government by contributing financing, to make sure price points are low. If it’s entirely led by the private sector, they will need return on investment which may lead to high prices. We have to be responsible in knowing that if our vision is to connect the majority of citizens, it means we have to include people below the poverty line as well.

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