Colossal growth in Kenya’s hyperscale infrastructure space
Building infrastructure in any emerging market takes time and patience. As IXAfrica breaks grounds in Kenya, Guy Willner, CEO and chairman of IXcellerate tells Abigail Opiah that construction on the continent is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ venture.
Over the last three to five years, the data centre sector has witnessed a call to action to invest in new data centre infrastructure on the African continent. This is a conversation happening in almost every data centre provider’s boardroom, as the critical role of data houses becomes clearer to global investors.
Assessing the top national markets, Guy Willner, CEO and chairman of IXcellerate, says the firm is interested in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria as major hubs in sub-Sahara Africa, with Ghana also potentially getting interesting.
IXAfrica, a new digital habitat for cloud, colocation, and connectivity in East Africa, recently unveiled the start of significant investment in Kenya's digital economy, with an ambitious plan to build a sustainable campus at a prime location in Nairobi.
It sounds easy on paper, but Willner sets the record straight about how complicated the journey is, from finding a piece of land to building the facility from the ground up.
“In Moscow, it took us four years to find a decent piece of land to build a data centre on, and the same for Kenya - it took us a long time to find the land. We started looking for the land in Kenya with Teraco back in 2014,” he says.
“While we were looking, the market had completely transformed. Our original idea was to build a retail data centre in Nairobi. Since then, several other players have come into the market and suddenly we have been approached by hyperscalers that want to know whether we are building hyperscale data centres in Nairobi.
“We transformed the project into a hyperscale project and worked with data centre design specialist, Future-Tech, who were doing some interesting work in Uganda. We managed to squeeze an amazing amount of power into our campus.”
The company plans to build out the campus to 42.5MW of IT load in the coming years, developing on adjacent plots to the 183,000 sq ft site.
“Originally it was going to look like an Interxion or Equinix-style ecosystem play, but now it looks more like an Airtrunk or Ascenty-type play, where we are going in first with the hyperscalers, then we will bring in the rest,” adds Willner.
“Nairobi is the London of Kenya – it is a real tech hub and one of the four global United Nations HQ’s is in Nairobi. There is a lot going on there – you have the undersea cables also coming into Mombasa and they go down to South Africa.”
Kenya’s population was estimated to be a little under 54 million people at mid-year 2020, according to UN data. The population is equivalent to 0.69% of the total world population, with Nairobi being a Gateway to East Africa.
African countries have adopted digital approaches within their transformation strategies and some countries – specifically Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa – have taken huge strides to digitally empower their citizens. What has been central to this development is the increase in internet and mobile phone usage in the region.
“You do have to be very careful – just because it’s Africa, it doesn’t mean all the markets think the same way or work the same way. The countries on the continent are all very different with very different histories and backgrounds and it is not a one size fits all venture. It will be much more complex as a rollout, just like Europe was complex,” he explains.
Africa's data centre market size is expected to cross $3 billion in value by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of more than 12%, according to a recent report by Turner and Townsend. The sector has witnessed a steady growth in interest from major global cloud service providers such as AWS, Microsoft, and Huawei over the last five years.
Willner highlights the importance of building in emerging markets, while adding that he detests data centres sitting in the north of Holland and everything being delivered offshore.
“I remember when former US president Barrack Obama was opening up Cuba, Google promised to set up all of the internet for the country with plans to run it from Miami,” he adds.
“I love it when countries come up with data sovereignty laws because that brings the data onshore, which brings the data centres onshore and the employment onshore also.”
In 2019, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta approved legislation, which complies with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. The legislation came as the continent saw an increased call for African governments to pay more attention to the protection of data.
Companies are aware of this and Willner says that, as a result, there is a lot of hot air from some of the big internet players claiming that if they build a data centre in a particular community, they will create 100 jobs, which is not always the reality.
“If you build a commercial, multi-customer data centre in a city, then you start creating a dynamic with all the integrators who start bringing in local banks, local customers, and local pharmaceutical distribution companies to connect them to the cloud,” he explains.
“This could then lead to software players choosing to stay in the city rather than heading to London to create their start-ups because there is an ecosystem there. This strengthens the internet economy.”
With Willner’s team each having 20 years of experience in the data centre industry, combined with strong investor support, he sees no reason why IXAfrica cannot become the leading operator in Kenya.
The company’s ambitious project will allow both enterprises and government to further harness technology to help create a greener future.
“We have a 42.5MW plan and if you assume that to build 1MW of power in today’s data centre world is anything between $6 million to $12 million, then that’s a quarter of a billion dollars we have got to spend,” he explains.
“This will be spent over a 10-year period, which will depend on when the customers come and what demands we see. We are going to be building in little chunks. Over the next 18 months, we will be not spending much more than $100 million, which is still quite a lot for this type of project.”
Emerging markets tend to leapfrog technologies occasionally and, in recent years, the region has been working towards a reliable internet ecosystem of cloud and technology companies on-campus, complemented by a large volume of serviced office space and extensive satellite landing station capacity.
“In East Africa, they started doing mobile payment technology with SMS mobile payment, which is a very secure mobile payment technology way before Europe and the US did. They did not have the bank cards and chequebooks, so they leapfrogged and went straight into mobile banking technology,” says Willner reflecting on past and present market developments.
“There are a few interesting aspects in Africa, where they do not always follow what is going on in other markets, which means there is a level of originality in the market. Other than that, it is similar to other global markets. Everyone wants to watch Netflix and use Spotify. In Kenya, there is a lot more fibre than there was five years ago, there is more mobile and there is lots more 5G coming in.”
Willner makes note of the fact that the industry should be looking at where telecoms deregulation happens because if there is no telecoms deregulation, then it is like building an airport but only one airline is going to land there - which doesn’t make much sense.
“This is a question for Ethiopia, for example, that built a fantastic economy but are behind with telecoms whereby networks have not really been built,” he concludes.
“For us, the key is to get this one working – I don’t want to be on vanguard of building a sub-Saharan Africa network because I would rather let someone who is up and coming do that. I think it’s time to hand it over.”