African data centre sustainability

16 December 2022

Data centres have become key to Africa’s mobile network operators, helping support the massive growth of data from voice and mobile, as well as emerging technologies like 5G and IoT. Amy Saunders discusses one of the most pressing considerations for those in the data centre world: sustainability

Data centres play a key role in our increasingly digital world, providing centralised locations for processing organisations IT operations and equipment to store, process and disseminate data.

For MNOs, data centres have become vital for managing the huge volumes of data and voice traffic – in the first quarter of 2020, more than 45 exabytes of data and voice and traffic passed through telecommunications networks – and with the ongoing 5G and IoT deployments, this data volume is set to skyrocket. African MNOs are investing heavily in data centres to keep up with demand brought about by digital transformation.

The importance of data centres is growing across the world as public and private sector enterprises alike are becoming increasingly digitised. This is reflected in the numbers; Allied Market Research reports that the global data centre market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 10.5% over 2020-2030 to reach US$517.17 billion.

A fledgling market

The African data centre market is in its infancy; however, demand is booming as the digital revolution takes hold.

Arizton Advisory and Intelligence reports that the African data centre market is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 12.73% to US$5.4 billion over 2021-2027, significantly above whole-world averages. The market is expected to comprise 1,355,000 square feet of floor area and 267MW of capacity by 2027. Research and Markets reports that Africa has more than nine data centres that have each added 30,000 square feet of white floor area or more in 2021. South Africa is the leading country in terms of investment at more than 50% in 2021, followed by Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, and Ethiopia.

Market growth has been attributed to the advancement of technologies like the cloud, big data, and IoT, which generate more data through high-end applications and need more efficient systems for data processing. Significant recent activity by hyperscalers looking for more than 20MW data centre capacity has impacted on Africa. Meanwhile, several government bodies have taken initiatives to develop special economic zones (SEZs), free trade zones, industrial parks, high-tech parks, and business service parks that provide tax exemptions for data centre development. Kenya aims to set up special economic zones in Mombasa, Lamu, and Kisumu to attract data centre investment.

Key continent-wide investments that will positively affect the market include Kenya’s construction of the first smart city, Konza Technology City; Teraco Data Environments has partnered with Routed for African Cloud Exchange; Microsoft, has announced the availability addition zone in Johannesburg; the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) has released the Nigeria Cloud Computing Policy (NCCP) with the goal of achieving a 30% increase in the cloud adoption by 2024; MTN plans to become carbon neutral by 2040 via its Project Zero programme.

Leading by example

Homing in on Africa’s leading data centre market, Arizton Advisory and Intelligence reports that South Africa will see its market expand at a CAGR of 11.15% in 2022-2027 to reach US$3.23 billion. Market size is expected to reach 555,000 square feet of floor areas and 103MW of capacity by 2027, while colocation market revenue should hit US$540 million.

South Africa has more than 20 operational colocation data centres, most of which are being developed according to Tier III standards. Johannesburg is the centre for investment in South Africa, followed by Cape Town, Durban, Centurion, and other cities like Port Elizabeth.

The regional growth is attributed to the increase in local internet and social media penetration driven by COVID-19, deployment of 5G, improved inland connectivity, and low electricity and land prices. Hybrid cloud services are gaining increased traction, with most enterprises using private and public cloud environments to improve information sharing and efficiently manage data. Research and Markets estimates that cloud adoption will grow up to 25% annually and is expected to generate US$1.5 billion by 2024. Additionally, South Africa is witnessing improvements in submarine and inland connectivity. For instance, 2Africa, the longest subsea cable, will connect South Africa with other countries such as India, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the UK, Oman, and other countries.

The introduction of South Africa’s Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) will protect the confidentiality of the citizen’s personal data, which will boost the market. Moreover, the country is also home to several city projects like the Lanseria Smart City, which will be built near the Lanseria International Airport near Johannesburg over the next 25 years.

Enabling Africa’s MNOs

The last decade or so has seen data centre technology become essential for telecommunications providers. Data centres are expected to help operation teams with simplified and automated data management that improves operational efficiency while cutting costs. Meanwhile, their customers are set to benefit from lower latency and higher quality services – a win-win for everyone.

With the rise of 5G, providers must transform their service infrastructure to meet new requirements, including high data rates, ultra-low latency, and massive machine-type communications. Incorporating cloud-native architecture into telecommunications data centre design is the key to enabling new services made possible by 5G that are application driven, agile, and mobile. This provides the best experience for the end user, and also optimizes and reduces bandwidth occupancy on the network transport side.

This technology presents an opportunity to provide services that maximize revenue opportunities with Opex savings. It helps deliver converged broadband and multi-access edge computing. This will result in an improvement of service velocity, agility, and operational efficiency that service providers can pass on to their consumer and business customers.

Moreover, using new-built local data centres rather than those apart from the continent enables MNOs to meet national data regulations, as well as benefitting from reduced latency.

“MNOs using African data centres instead of data centres outside the continent will increase drastically their performance and ensure African countries data sovereignty to protect African citizens,” said Paul-Francois Cattier, managing director, Africa Data Centres Association.

Recognising the opportunities offered by data centre technology, Africa’s MNOs have adopted their use faster than anticipated; a fantastic development for those in the value chain but one that raises questions about sustainability.

Climate neutrality

Data centres are estimated to consume anywhere from 1-3% of a nation’s total power consumption. This is just one reason why sustainability has become a key target for data centre operators and users alike. Many have committed to becoming climate neutral by 2030, and as of July 2022, 74 data centre operators and 23 associations have signed up to the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact, which requires increased energy efficiency; clean energy; water efficiency; circular economy; circular energy.
The Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact recognises that legacy data centres present one of the biggest challenges. Those built 10 or more years ago consume huge amounts of energy and will require heavy investment in the years to come for decarbonisation.

“The industry has to look towards technology that allows balance from both energy-efficiency, along with the data centre’s operational needs,” said Stavros Spyropoulos, business development manager Africa region, Subzero Engineering. “It is not unusual to walk into a data centre in Africa and find not only the chillers working at 100% but also within the hall itself A/C units working full time to make the working environment more bearable. As costs increase, this is becoming more and more unsustainable.”

However, most African data centres are modern constructs featuring more environmentally friendly designs. Moreover, for the many upcoming data centres on the continent, there are several features that can be incorporated from the planning stages to produce a greener installation. Immersion cooling, the application of artificial intelligence for workload management, and sourcing renewable materials for construction are just the tip of the iceberg. As well as proving positive for the environment, these green initiatives lower Opex for the lifetime of the data centre.

Indeed, many new ideas are coming into play, and vendors that can help source renewable energy, lower power usage effectiveness, and provide for greater building efficiency can expect to gain business in the years to come.

Energy efficiency key for sustainability

Data centres on the African continent face challenges unique from much of the world, including a hot, humid environment which requires more energy to cool and dry than those in Europe. With energy consumption accounting for a whopping 20-30% of the total cost of ownership for data centres, a large amount of which is associated with cooling measures, energy efficiency is key for both financial and environmental reasons.

“Energy efficiencies in data centres can come from two sides. The first is technical infrastructure of cooling. Cooling is a large energy consumer that can be reduced drastically with hot aisle and cold aisle urbanisation, as well as containment of hot aisle and in row cooling. Free cooling is available even in Africa given the right altitude, or overnight,” said Cattier. “The second side is the IT on servers; following the latest ASHRAE standard for data server temperatures, the environment could decrease the energy needed for cooling. Moreover, the virtualization of servers where possible is an excellent driver to reduce energy consumption up to a factor of five.”

According to the Africa Data Centres Association (ADCA), the average African data centre power usage efficiency ratio (PUE) is just 1.5, below the global average of 1.58. One of the reasons for this better-than-expected score is that most of Africa’s facilities are modern and more efficient, a positive result from being a latecomer to the digital revolution.

Looking to ensure African data centres continue to improve on their environmental credentials, the ADCA has outlined the following plan for sustainability:

  • Continued adoption of latest technology for new data centre construction
  • Creation of an African Code of Conduct utilising the process of continuous improvement through, planning, and monitoring
  • Promotion of the use of on-site renewable energies like solar, wind, water, hydrogen
  • Development of a ‘Keep it African’ Label to ensure the maximum usage of construction materials and hardware are sourced from the continent
  • Avoid the mistakes made in the past by global data centres lacking climate awareness

Power supply is notoriously challenging in parts of Africa and varies widely from country to country.

“The biggest challenge for Africa in the development of their data centre industry is access to a stable electricity grid, let alone a low carbon grid. In many areas a grid doesn’t even exist or is so unreliable that on site generation is the only way to operate,” said Simon Brady, head of data optimisation at Vertiv.

Indeed, South Africa has faced more than its fair share of power disruptions this year, causing chaos for MNOs and other enterprises relying on always-on connectivity, leading to the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) to crown ‘load-shedding’ as its word of the year.

As highlighted by both the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact and the ADCA, renewable energy has a huge role to play in the African data centre market. Adoption of renewables varies widely across the continent, although the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) states that solar is now the fastest-growing renewable energy source in Africa, with an increasing number of countries working to increase their solar capacities beyond 1GW. Northern and Southern Africa lead in renewable projects but countries across sub-Saharan Africa also have major renewable projects in the works.

“An ageing energy infrastructure in some countries means there is an overreliance on oil generators and operators need to look at more reliable sources,” said Spyropoulos. “If you take Kenya as an example, it hosts the largest wind farm in Africa, Turkana Wind Farm. The wind farm covers 160 square kilometres and has a capacity of 310MW, enough to supply one million homes. 90% of all of Kenya’s electricity being generated from renewable sources, such as wind and geothermal. However, in South Africa there is still a reliance on thermal power meaning currently it has a large carbon footprint.”

Several governments are adding more renewable energy production to cater to the increased requirements from African data centre operators. In August 2021, Morocco commissioned the 300MW Boujdour wind farm, part of an 850MW integrated wind energy project. In South Africa, Eskom plans to invest US$7 billion for renewable energy plans for the next nine years.

On-site power supply has been highlighted as a key factor in obtaining reliable energy for data centres. Environmentally unfriendly diesel generators are frequently found at African data centres for backup during grid outages to ensure continued operations for customers, but these are used at a high price for the environment.
“Sadly, most on site generation in these developing regions is via diesel generation,” said Brady. “On a more positive note, many of these developing regions have more solar hours, but data centre power density makes creating a net zero facility an expensive investment.”

The delivery of on-site renewable energy is challenging, since data centre form factors are compact, thus only a limited number of solar panels can be installed.

“With the most solarized area of the planet and the weakest energy grid, Africa will be obliged to achieve on site solutions for energy production as the best way to reach a climate neutral data centre,” said Cattier. “It’s been very interesting to see all these African Green Hydrogen projects breaking ground; these will certainly be used by African data centres.”

Alternatively, signing long-term power purchase agreements with renewable power providers could make a huge impact on data centre sustainability, as well as the local grid; however, regulations on this vary across the continent.

“Using renewable energy is complex as most of the time, they are not permanent – solar during the night, wind, even water is sometimes not producing energy - so it’s best to use a micro grid to juggle different sources of energy: the grid when available; battery storage; diesel generator; and renewables like solar, wind, hydrogen or water; and using the most effective and sustainable source at every moment automatically,” said Cattier. “Using this mix of energy sources will enable the most sustainable data centre, while maintaining 99.999% uptime.”

A green future

The African market is seeing some of the fastest growth in internet use and availability in the world due to a combination of factors including increased options, falling prices, and a fast-growing population with a high proportion of young people.

“Africa will reach a population of 2.5 billion by 2050, and most probably account for half of the global population at the end of this century, with a median age today below 18 years old. This young, dynamic group is adopting smartphone and internet as quickly as US teenagers, and leapfrogging Africa ahead in the digital world,” said Cattier. “African MNOs have been big drivers of this change, bringing access to the internet, knowledge, business opportunities, healthcare, finance, commerce and simplifying daily life.”

Alongside increased adoption of voice and data via mobile phones, and the onset of 5G, IoT and smart cities, data production and consumption are expected to continue to boom across the continent for the foreseeable future, fuelling increasing investments in cables, fibre, and data centres.

“While the developed world is still expanding internet and mobile reach, and trying to do so sustainably, developing nations are being asked to invest in their infrastructure in a sustainable way, when we didn’t have to,” said Brady. “More needs to be done to help these regions get their infrastructure up and running with ESG goals in mind.”

“The industry is responding successfully to this twin digital and sustainability challenge, with operational agility and technology innovation very much to the fore,” said Spyropoulos. “Add in the burgeoning secondary/regional/edge market and there is, perhaps, no better example of how all of these factors are shaping the global data centre industry than in Africa right now.”

Sustainability strategies are going to have a huge role to play to ensure that Africa doesn’t contribute disproportionately to climate change. Global and local standards can help here, however, good intentions only go so far. Real action is needed across the entire ecosystem - from MNO, to service provider, through to the data centre owner, to consumer – to strive for and demand truly sustainable technologies, for the good of their wallet, and indeed the good of the world.