The South Atlantic Inter Link (SAIL) is an ambitious 6,000-km submarine cable system that will connect Kribi, Cameroon with Fortaleza, Brazil. Scheduled for completion by Q3, 2018, SAIL brings together some major names in an ocean-spanning partnership designed to boost connectivity and economic activity across two continents. David Nkoto Emane, General Manager of Cameroon Telecom (CAMTEL), believes that the scheme’s main challenges can be overcome with the right mindset, strategies, and technologies.
With CAMTEL at the helm and China Unicom, Huawei Marine, and China Exim Bank bringing technical and financial expertise to the table, SAIL will provide a direct route for data traffic from Africa to South America.
The project will deploy four fiber pairs from Huawei Marine, each capable of transmitting 100 wavelengths with a bandwidth of 100 Gbit/s and delivering a design capacity of 32 Tbps. Huawei Marine will also apply its 6fp submarine Repeater 1660, the industry’s first titanium repeater. The 1660’s slim-line profile enables undersea cables to be laid and buried at the same time, an approach that slashes installation costs because expensive secondary, post-lay burial work is unnecessary – a crucial advantage given the scheme will reach depths of 5,000 meters. Burying cables using a subsea plough is one of the most effective methods of protecting a submarine cable from damage caused by external factors like debris and sediment.
On the technical side, Nkoto Emane is confident in the expertise Huawei has shown over 13 years of collaboration with the state-owned operator. “We will use a world-class technology thanks to Huawei Marine, a new technology,” he says. “I know what they’re going to do, and I expect the project to finish very successfully.”
According to the CAMTEL GM, the biggest challenge with SAIL wasn’t technical – the hard sell was in fact the scheme’s size. “This is the first project of such scope in Africa south of the Sahara,” he says, admitting “that the difficulties with this type of project are enormous.” This is especially true when the region lacks similar schemes for reference. To convince the government and financers, “It was necessary first of all to understand and explain why we need the project,” Nkoto Emane says.
For a start, the potential economic benefits are persuasive. Africa is one of the least connected of the world’s regions, with just 35.2 percent of the continent’s citizens enjoying Internet access, far below the world average of 54.4 percent. Recent research by Cornell University showed a positive correlation between GDP per capita and IP per capita and found that IP per capita in fact serves as a predictor of economic activity. In turn, Huawei’s Global Connectivity Index reveals that a one-point rise on its connectivity scale boosts a nation’s competitiveness, innovation, and productivity by 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3 percent, respectively.
With just under a quarter of Cameroon’s 23 million people connected, faster connectivity and wider coverage are essential for the nation to transition into a digital economy. “Because Cameroon is semi-rural, it’s a matter of adding networks in villages, in production basins, because we have farmers and breeders who are in a rural environment,” says Nkoto Emane. Connectivity in the agricultural vertical is essential both and now and in the future, not least because it’s forms the backbone of Cameroon’s economy, employing 70 percent of its population.
The first immediate benefit of connectivity is that it gives farmers an insight into market prices for their crops, mainly cocoa and coffee in Cameroon’s case. It allows them to get a fair price for what they’re selling, which is something that hasn’t traditionally happened for the nation’s farmers. Second, it enables the uptake of nascent innovations in agriculture. These include NB-IoT networks and sensor tech that improve productivity for livestock breeders, like we’re seeing with connected cows in China. Third, connectivity supports mid-term and longer-term goals that lay the foundation for precise, high-yield connected farming by supporting techniques such as variable rate input for fertilizer and pesticides, smart irrigation, soil monitoring for things like moisture and oxygen exhaustion, smart greenhouses, smart farm management systems, and monitoring by drones. These are features that can ramp up efficiency even for the micro-farms we mainly see in Cameroon, where yields tend to be low and soil conditions poor.
When SAIL is up and running, which Nkoto Emane says will be no later than the end of Q3 2018, high-speed, low-latency, and high-capacity Internet access will be delivered not just to Cameroon and Brazil, but also to their neighboring countries. While just over half of Nigerian’s are online, Cameroon’s eastern neighbors, Chad and Central African Republic, barely register in the connected context, recording Internet penetration rates of just 5 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively. Such a large digital divide hinders the development of the digital economy in the whole region.
Nkoto Emane believes that SAIL will help balance the connectivity scales for Africa’s 54 nations and also create a stronger bond with South America. “This project is essential not only for CAMTEL, but also for Cameroon and for the whole of Africa,” he says. “On a cultural level, it will enable the two continents to be closer, the South American continent and the African continent.”
Extending CAMTEL international reach is a strategy that the CAMTEL GM believes will encourage inward investment and promote the Cameroon’s development. “International activities and revenue always finance the national,” asserts Nkoto Emane. “What we draw from this on the economic level is sufficient revenue to continue to finance numerous projects on the national level.” This includes infrastructure build-out that will cover Cameroon and beyond. CAMTEL plans to “continue laying 20,000 kilometers of fiber optic cable, up from 11,000 kilometers today,” he says, before deploying “satellites, which will help reach villages very easily.”
As well as developing the agriculture vertical, stronger broadband infrastructure will underpin Cameroon’s digital 2020 strategy, in which CAMTEL is playing a central role. Broadband connectivity and SAIL, says Nkoto Emane, will act as a springboard to scale greater digital heights, “It means having data centers and applications, including artificial intelligence, that third-parties and businesses will be able to use. It means making our country a genuine hub in Africa, the place where all the communications arrive, and the place where all the communications leave for the sub-region and throughout Africa.”
In terms of the business sector, the improved infrastructure delivered by SAIL will help Chinese enterprises in both Cameroon and Africa, and therefore the local economy and its future development. In an article in November 2017, the Pan-African Media for Climate Change cites comments from Louis Paul Motaze, Cameroon’s Minister of Economy, Planning and Regional Development. Motaze believes that Chinese finance will benefit the energy and transportation sectors with projects that will help create double-digit economic growth by 2035 and enable the nation to hit the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Connectivity is a must for both economic development and for achieving the SDGs, with a Huawei study in 2017 correlating ICT development and SDGs in 15 countries. Finding a particularly strong correlation between ICT and SDG 9 ─ infrastructure, industry and innovation ─ the study supports Motaze’s view. The Chairman of Huawei’s Corporate Sustainable Development Committee, Tao Jinwen, commented that, “Today, most vital infrastructure is controlled by ICT: power grids, water supplies, transportation hubs, and more. This makes ICT infrastructure an economic cornerstone, not just for utilities and logistics, but for empowerment. Broadband access enables people to obtain education, start businesses, create jobs, and much more.”
Nkoto Emane admits that SAIL is now a more ambitious scheme than CAMTEL anticipated when it got the green light back in 2015. However, he’s clear about one key aspect of realizing big, ocean-crossing dreams that will serve as a springboard for sustainability and economic development, “A company cannot develop alone. For a company to be competitive, it must have good partners.”