Telecom Review Africa conducted an exclusive interview with Philippe Wang, Executive Vice President of Northern Africa, Huawei to discuss the economic growth of Africa Also, he shed light on the solutions of decarbonizing infrastructure and improving energy efficiency on network challenges. Wang tackled the subject of how can technologies help modernize industries, and shared some thoughts about the necessity for industries to keep innovating to promote clean power generation, green infrastructure, and smart and green energy.

The economic growth of Africa is becoming more and more dependent on the digital economy. From your perspective, how will this affect data traffic, energy consumption, and the increase in carbon emissions?

After a sudden slowing of the economic growth in Africa, but also all over the world, following the pandemic, the digital sector has never been as central to the African states’ economies. During the COVID-19 crisis, the digital sector showed a rate growth of 15.6 points per year due to the mobilization of the ecosystem to keep innovating and investing in this strategic sector. By 2025, the IFC (International Finance Corporation) report says the digital economy in Africa could represent 5.2% of the continent’s GDP. Digital potential in Africa is huge regarding the multiple opportunities on the continent. Indeed, the rapid spread of mobile and digital technology, infrastructures and services in sub-Saharan Africa is very likely to enable African countries to make a fast jump in economic and social development.

These developments in digital raise major challenges, particularly in terms of data management with an urgent need to adapt and modernize the infrastructures on the continent. Nowadays, only 1.3% of the world's data centers are located in Africa. As a provider of advanced infrastructure and technology solutions, Huawei Northern Africa believes that building data centers requires investment and capacity for managing this growing volume of data locally. It’s a matter of sovereignty for African countries. However, these data infrastructures require the operation of servers 24/7 and cooling systems that are energy and water intensive.

Consequently, the booming digital economy is creating more data traffic on networks and electricity consumption. Thereby, Africa’s digital economy needs to be designed regarding carbon emission mitigation so that digital can deploy its full potential for the continent without compromising sustainable development goals.

Currently, Africa faces a double challenge of decarbonizing infrastructure and improving energy efficiency on networks, both of which are accelerating the growth of major African metropolises that require energy as well as bringing and distributing energy to under-electrified regions. What solutions are available to tackle these challenges?

First and foremost, at Huawei Northern Africa we believe digital is key to enhancing energy efficiency on infrastructures and networks. Indeed, we are constantly innovating through digitalization by promoting renewable energy in our ICT infrastructure. For instance, in Ethiopia, Huawei has rolled out more than 400 solar sites using Advanced Hybrid Power solutions as well as Smart Micro Grids, powering communication stations by solar energy. This innovative system using a cleaner source of electric power helps save more than 12 million liters of diesel fuel per year, thus, reducing annual carbon emissions by 2,850 tons [when] compared to traditional power supply solutions. In addition, this solution won the 21st AfricaCom “Best Sustainable Energy Solution” award.

Also, obviously, it is clear the development of major metropolises must not be at the expense of the need for electrification in an isolated region. At Huawei, we have been tackling this challenge on the continent for more than 20 years by using innovation to improve energy inclusiveness in Africa. Another example in Cameroon shows how we leverage technological innovation for the benefit of electrification in rural areas. From 2014 to 2021, Huawei and Cameroon’s Ministry of Energy and Water Resources signed off on three phases of the Rural Solar Power. This off-grid solar panel project combines rural grids and solar power forming an ecosystem based on networks, access to electricity and access to applications for people living in isolated areas where a traditional electrification system is difficult to set. To date, this solution allows 350 villages and more than 40,000 households to have access to electricity.

How can technologies help modernize industries, especially traditional ones, while making them more environmentally friendly?

Africa is a huge reserve of natural resources and gathers more than 60% of the world’s arable lands. Indeed, even though African countries’ economies are still very much dependent on related traditional economic sectors (agriculture, exportation of raw materials etc.), there is a need to unleash the full potential of these sectors as economic and social levers. Nowadays, the African agricultural and livestock farming sector represents 23% of the continent's GDP and employs nearly 55% of the active population, but still, due to long-term underinvestment, agricultural production in Africa hasn’t reached a sufficient level to completely play its role in transforming the economies, creating employment and ensuring food security, thus reducing poverty. Nowadays, the deployment of ICT infrastructures and innovative solutions are real game-changer for those primary industries. At Huawei, we innovate to contribute to helping companies and States be actors of concrete positive change.

When we have a close look into what digital can bring to the agriculture sector, it is very promising. Indeed, tractors and farm machineries can be equipped with sensors and so on, moving in an autonomous way across fields. Consequently, a precise and programmed routing of a tractor’s path reduces fuel use by 17%, for instance, and the installation of sensors can decrease pesticide use by 80% or even more. Sensors can analyze the components of the soil and transmit all this information into the cloud by artificial intelligence. It will become an indispensable tool for the modernization of the agricultural sector.

In parallel, in Africa, lots of sites are still powered by generators for electrification needs. In this perspective, in order to limit the depletion of raw materials used as components, especially lithium, at Huawei, we are developing new technologies to replace lithium with alternatives that are less energy-intensive. This is work we’ve been undertaking for years — anticipating shortage.

Can you tell us more about the integration of cutting-edge technologies, such as AI and Big Data, requiring the continent to equip itself with data infrastructures that are energy-intensive? And what are the proposed solutions to decarbonize the digital sector itself?

The digital sector itself indeed appears to be very demanding in terms of energy consumption. The integration of cutting-edge technologies in the different industries can help reduce the carbon footprint of these sectors, but innovation such as IA or Cloud Computing calls for a responsible and sustainable treatment and management of the data it generates if we still want it to be a major lever to boost the data economy in Africa. Huawei Northern Africa has been highly adaptive in its innovations in recent years in order to respond to these challenges. Providing quality products and services is a priority for our company. I would like to evoke a few examples testifying to our capability to ally digital and energy transitions while ensuring a high quality and performance.

Huawei marketed in May 2022 a sustainable, reliable and autonomous new generation of data centers called PowerPOD 3.0. It combines multiple innovations. First saving space due to its size, then saving time due to a brand-new power supply system with sufficiently available electronic components, and finally reducing energy consumption by 70%. This intelligent data center is entirely energy efficient and limits the depletion of resources since it favors the recycling of all the materials necessary for their manufacture.

Huawei recently announced a few more groundbreaking innovations developed for the purposes of the green transition of sites, networks and operations, which can significantly increase network capacity and reduce energy consumption per bit at the same time. Last year, Huawei launched a green 5G antenna able to cover an area of up to 500 meters using half the transmission power. Those antennas with innovative algorithms can cut energy consumption by 30%, (based on NCIe approved by the ITU-T) while providing 30 times the capacity of 4G.

Why is it necessary for industries to keep innovating to promote clean power generation, green infrastructure and smart and green energy?

The opportunities of digital seem endless, and it is our responsibility as a private company to support the public authorities in their technological deployment for the purposes of a sustainable and inclusive world. The digital economy is a chance for the different economies and vibrant societies in Africa and the rest of the world. Nevertheless, the climate change threat and energy transition needs are key for the viability of economic growth carried by the digital sector. At Huawei, we believe that a digital economy is a green economy that brings a greener future. However, it can only be achieved with fundamental requirements. First, we pledge to enhance the innovation dynamic on the continent. Continuous innovation helps create value for our customers and partners, while promoting the sustainable development of society, both in terms of economic and environmental issues. This is a priority for Huawei. Indeed, the company’s R&D expenditure and R&D rate broke its all-time record in 2021, with a total investment of 142.7 billion yuan (¥), accounting for about 22.4% of annual revenue.

Also, we believe collaboration brings solutions. Therefore, we remain committed to cooperation with all actors to promote a business ecosystem that thrives on shared success and reduces the carbon footprint, supports environmental protection and promotes greater sustainability. Building and consolidating a strong industrial and business ecosystem promoting digital and green innovation is the key to unlocking opportunities for future generations.

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