[Column] Tejpal Bedi: Kenya’s data centres – Essential infrastructure for expanding our digital economy

Although most of us don’t usually spend much time thinking about data centres, they play a fundamental role in the origin, delivery, and maintenance of Internet services and networks. And our need for them is growing as more people use the Internet to join the digital economy. Global traffic surged by more than 40% in 2020 as a result of increased video streaming, teleconferencing, online gaming, and social networking. The number of global Internet users has doubled since 2010, and with that increase comes the need for data centres that can not only cater for current requirements, but also for future loads that require even more complex computing capabilities.

In an African context, countries such as Kenya and Uganda have seen increased investment and interest from multinational operators. We see this with data centre operator Raxio launching its first carrier-neutral centre in Kampala in 2021. Other examples include PAIX building a data centre in Nairobi’s financial district, and Asteroid International expanding its Kenyan Internet exchange service from Mombasa to Nairobi. Combined with the increasing investment from hyperscalers such as AWS, Google, and Meta, the end result of this is more value for end users and enterprises in the East African region, with better speeds, better pricing, and a blossoming digital economy.

In Kenya, more data centres, and their surrounding technology infrastructure, could change how people and businesses engage with global networks and systems. To do that, it’s important to know what that infrastructure looks like, and what it is capable of. 

Inside a data centre

What do you see when you imagine a data centre? Perhaps a giant warehouse filled with endless corridors of blinking server towers, storing data or serving as a junction point through which data passes on its journey from A to B. However, today’s data centres are more complex. They are designed to support multiple on-site and cloud activities, especially when it comes to business IT. A data centre can support email and file sharing customer relationship management (CRM) platforms, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and databases, virtual desktops and communication services, as well as evolving applications in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Centres are comprised of servers, routers, switches, firewalls, and service delivery controllers, all vital components that work together to deliver comprehensive functionality.

While there are various kinds of centres that cater to specific services, colocation centres and carrier-neutral facilities are two of the most common; both of which serve important purposes for all kinds of enterprises. Simply put, colocation centres offer a space, both physical and virtual, for companies to store and manage their servers and other infrastructure, while carrier-neutral centres are independent entities offering various connection options to customers, including direct connections and cloud services.

The impact of Kenya’s data centres

Considered the gateway to the East Africa region, Kenya plays an important geographical and logistical role in the rollout of Internet connectivity and services on the continent. Our country enjoys the presence of several local facility operators that have grown and expanded in part thanks to acquisitions or partnerships with global operators, while also offering end-to-end solutions for companies of all sizes. Investments in broadband undersea cables and landing stations enable accessibility, connecting the continent to global cloud networks and serving as the bedrock on which Kenya can embrace cutting-edge digital solutions. 

According to the Kenya Data Centre Investment Analysis Report, our data centre market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12.36% between 2021 and 2026. Kenya serves as of one the continent’s primary data centre hubs. Nairobi is a favourable location for data centre development, with Mombasa becoming more popular with service providers as well. Data centres enable the growing adoption of big data and Internet of Things (IoT) services, while the demand for original design manufacturer (ODM) servers among operators also fuels growth in server infrastructure. These factors contribute to Kenya’s position not only as a continental leader, but also as an opportunity hotbed for technology sectors. 

Innovation, energy, and the future

Despite this potential, Africa’s hosting capacity remains minimal. The continent’s capacity is only a fraction of some of the world’s largest data centre metros, such as London or Amsterdam. However, new facility construction has accelerated as markets consider hosting and cloud service opportunities. Reliable data centre infrastructure, as offered and maintained by reputable service providers, mean users in Nairobi can utilise AI, blockchain and other digital resources with the same level of security and ease as other users in the overseas metros.

This infrastructure, and its energy requirements, also raises environmental considerations that are being addressed. Growing demand for data centres continues to be mostly offset by ongoing efficiency improvements in servers, switches, and other infrastructure. Combined with mobile networks switching from 2G and 3G technologies to more efficient 4G and 5G ones, data centres are becoming increasingly energy efficient.

From fledgling start-ups to large corporates, we can’t underestimate the importance of data centres when it comes to delivering Internet solutions and unlocking digital opportunities. With data centres offering so much to the Kenyan economy and individual businesses, it’s a good time for companies to prioritise finding reliable ICT partners and service providers of data hosting facilities.

Tejpal Bedi is the SEACOM Managing Director and Regional Head of Sales for the ENEA region.