Fall 2023

Investing in Accessible Infrastructure in Africa

– Enoh T. Ebong

American technology and African ingenuity combine to create creative pathways for economic growth.

Africa is a place of innovation and I have long held the belief that Africa and the United States share an ethos of ingenuity and entrepreneurship, making us natural partners. I see it firsthand through my work at the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), where we partner with African countries to find new pathways to close its infrastructure gaps. I also saw this firsthand through my upbringing in Lagos, Nigeria, where basic infrastructure was not always widely accessible. I often witnessed the patience and creativity of women and men who had to overcome both difficult circumstances and less-than-perfect infrastructure to succeed in the daily responsibilities of life and work.

To most, infrastructure conjures images of roads and bridges—but it also encompasses a wide spectrum of sectors that are often cross-functional and technologically complex. This includes digital infrastructure for high-speed internet, mobile communication, and other systems that connect us to the world. It includes high-tech traffic management systems that keep us moving safely and efficiently, whether by car, airplane, or train.

We need infrastructure to keep our families healthy. We also need clean, reliable electricity to power our homes, schools, businesses, and hospitals. High-quality infrastructure typically requires the integration of multiple disciplines. For example, digital infrastructure is required for telehealth and intelligent transportation systems. Telecommunications and healthcare infrastructure need reliable power to ensure the delivery of critical services.

The question regarding Africa is not whether it will go far, but with whom, and African countries have the right to choose their partners.

From a young age, I learned that infrastructure is critical because it is the foundation for economic activity, quality of life, and our overall well-being. Today, I see how climate-smart infrastructure, when built to the highest standards, can help countries address the severest climate challenges. This is why infrastructure must be accessible to all citizens: to maximize its benefits to society and support equitable, broad-based economic growth. 

For these reasons, access to infrastructure is a guiding principle for USTDA’s work in Africa. We unite the creative strengths of the private and public sectors in the United States and Africa to address the infrastructure priorities for the continent’s underserved communities. Our starting point for action is project preparation.

High-Quality Infrastructure Requires High-Quality Preparation

Infrastructure development requires a complex and costly combination of project-specific technical and financial expertise from project managers, engineers, and technical, financial, and legal experts. The banks that invest in infrastructure projects want to be assured that the analyses they receive are accurate and reliable. Their standards are exceptionally high and costly—which is understandable when you consider a bank may invest millions of dollars into an infrastructure project, but it presents a serious challenge given the dearth of funding for project preparation in emerging economies.

USTDA was founded 30 years ago with the dual mandate of helping emerging economies overcome these challenges, while matching US export opportunities to the projects that USTDA supports. Our grant-based feasibility studies, technical assistance, and pilot projects help to define the technical requirements for infrastructure projects and create roadmaps for the necessary financing. The projects that we support reflect the mutual priorities of our overseas partners and US industry, which increases the likelihood of positive outcomes. These types of partnerships are critical for infrastructure development.

Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships Are Key

The healthcare infrastructure sector offers a good example of the holistic, multi-stakeholder approach that is needed to facilitate access to vital services. In Africa, less than half of the population have access to healthcare. That amounts to more than 600 million people, many of whom live in rural communities, and telehealth is an excellent solution for bridging this gap and meeting the healthcare needs of remote, underserved communities.

Mobihealth, a woman-led company in Nigeria that was founded to help transform the delivery of healthcare services in Africa, currently provides telehealth services in Nigeria, and has set a goal to expand its healthcare access model to Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, and Egypt. Mobihealth uses US-based healthcare technology to integrate vital functions, including remote diagnostics and virtual reality treatment, into its telemedicine and electronic health record platform. It partners with telecommunications and financial technology companies to reduce its operating costs and provide affordable access to quality care. This effort includes a network of doctors from around the world who can speak the languages in the local communities that Mobihealth serves.

In 2022, USTDA was introduced to Mobihealth’s founder and Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Funmi Adewara, through our partnership with the Africa Investment Forum (AIF). AIF was established in 2019 by the African Development Bank and seven partner institutions to accelerate transactions, and attract investors to close Africa’s investment gaps. This introduction led to a USTDA grant for the feasibility study that Mobihealth requires for its telehealth expansion plans.

“African female entrepreneurs find it much harder to raise funds so this support from the USTDA, made possible through the AIF, will be invaluable,” Dr. Adewara said. “The impact this project will have across Africa’s healthcare system cannot be overemphasized.”

When fully implemented, more than 100,000 underserved people will have access to telehealth, laboratory, and pharmacy services through solar-powered and mobile telehealth clinics, including a patient portal and remote diagnostic tools. We anticipate these mobile clinics will be stocked with US-made medical devices and equipment.

Unique Challenges Require Unique Solutions

Entrepreneurs like Dr. Adewara face significant hurdles: by some estimates, only 10% of Africa’s priority infrastructure projects make it to financial close. This is often due to the lack of sufficient resources to produce satisfactory technical and financial analyses for funders.For these reasons, it is vital to de-risk Africa’s infrastructure projects. Africa is home to many financial institutions with a deep and nuanced understanding of its markets, and bespoke solutions are needed to mobilize capital on a case by case basis.

Nigeria’s Infrastructure Credit Guarantee Company (known as InfraCredit) is one such institution. USTDA recently funded a feasibility study for one of its clients, Hotspot Network Limited, to assess the deployment of solar-powered base stations to provide telecommunications services to underserved rural communities in Nigeria. Our study led to InfraCredit’s issuance earlier this year of local currency guarantees that further de-risked the project, attracted financing, lowered borrowing rates, and ultimately made Hotspot’s services more affordable for its customers. While most international financiers prefer to finance in dollars or euros, the collaboration between USTDA and InfraCredit helped deploy an innovative African financing mechanism that is unlocking local currency capital for African infrastructure.

This financing will deploy 120 base stations to communities that lack the requisite power infrastructure for reliable telecommunications. Hotspot intends to grow the project to 2,000 sites and reach millions of underserved Nigerians, which will create commercial opportunities for US companies to supply advanced Open RAN technology, allowing for a mix and match from different manufacturers to enable more affordable mobile services.

Local Partners, Local Solutions

In addition to creative financing solutions, we see a great deal of ingenuity among our local partners who often adapt nascent and innovative US technology to suit their specific infrastructure requirements. For example, the integration of renewable energy into electricity grids requires technologically sophisticated systems to ensure the grid’s stability and reliability. US industry offers battery systems that store wind and solar energy that can be released into the grid when it is needed.

The signing of the grant agreement between USTDA and GreenCo Group. Front: USTDA Director Enoh T. Ebong (left), GreenCo Group CEO Ana Hajduka (right). Back: Representatives from USTDA, Government of Zambia, and GreenCo Group. Photo courtesy USTDA.

Zambia’s GreenCo Power Storage Limited (GreenCo) intends to expand battery energy storage systems throughout the country and build one of the largest battery installations in Africa. This infrastructure will place Zambia at the center of renewable energy trading across southern Africa and will allow energy traders to buy renewable energy from anywhere in the region, store it in Zambia, and sell it to any customer connected to the 12-country Southern Africa Power Pool. The innovative application and end-use of the proposed battery energy storage systems will be unlike anything else in Africa and a  USTDA-funded feasibility study will help make this project a reality.

Africa’s digital infrastructure sector is similarly rife with ambition. Connecting more people in underserved communities to high-speed internet requires overcoming the high costs associated with fiber optic connections and the low bandwidth constraints of existing cellular networks.

Only 36% of Africa’s population has broadband internet access. This is both an economic development challenge and a market opportunity for Africa’s entrepreneurs. As a result, many African internet service providers prioritize affordable access as part of their business model. In terms of technology, fixed wireless access offers an affordable high-speed internet option. The technology connects cellular towers with wireless receivers that can be placed in homes, buildings, and public infrastructure. It is well suited to cities and has a low deployment time and cost.

By offering a partnership of equals, the United States can make a compelling case for its role in Africa’s future.

Kenya’s Poa Internet uses fixed wireless technology to provide service to 17,000 low- and middle-income customers in Nairobi. The company approached USTDA in 2022 with its vision to expand its affordable connectivity model to 1,000,000 households in low-income urban areas outside of Kenya. USTDA offered grant funding for a feasibility study to inform their project’s development and help attract additional financing from international investors. We see potential for US companies to provide similar technology solutions for Poa.

Partnering for Mutual Benefit

In the last 15 months since I was confirmed as USTDA’s director, I have been to Africa six times. When I visited Nigeria last fall, I saw the same familiar energy and ingenuity in people that I witnessed in my youth. I spoke with leaders from the private and public sectors who have a vision for the infrastructure solutions that will help Nigeria keep its growing pace of economic activity. These kinds of conversations form the substance of most of my interactions across the continent—the need for partnership being the common thread.

Many Sub-Saharan African countries seek partnership with the United States because we offer positive alternatives for their infrastructure development and economic growth. I see the reception to the principles of mutual benefit and our collective prosperity among the region’s leaders and I also see an interest in the best of what America represents and can offer, including the innovation and creativity of our private sector.

A much-quoted African proverb states, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”

The question regarding Africa is not whether it will go far, but with whom, and African countries have the right to choose their partners. By offering a partnership of equals, the United States can make a compelling case for its role in Africa’s future.

Enoh T. Ebong is the Director of the US Trade and Development Agency. Nominated by President Biden and unanimously confirmed by the US Senate, Ms. Ebong leads USTDA in its efforts to develop sustainable infrastructure in emerging economies, while also supporting US jobs through exports. Ms. Ebong previously served as USTDA’s Deputy Director/Chief Operating Officer and as General Counsel. Before joining USTDA, she practiced business and finance law and held leadership positions in the nonprofit sector. In March 2023, President Biden appointed Ms. Ebong to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Ms. Ebong earned her JD from the University of Michigan Law School and has a MA in History from The University of Edinburgh.

Cover photo: USTDA Director Enoh T. Ebong touring a wind farm in Kenya. Photo courtesy USTDA.