A Look at Africa’s Mission Critical Infrastructure
Real Estate Insight by Matthew Renshaw, Senior Director, Project & Development Services, Sub Sahara & Africa
The mention of ‘mission critical infrastructure’ in Africa typically suggests large public sector projects such as airports, roads or power plants. However, there is a growing demand from the government and private sectors for mission critical built environment assets such as data centres, pharmaceutical laboratories, research facilities, hospitals and medical clinics.
Mission critical projects such as data centres and laboratories require a much higher demand for power, clean water and air quality than traditional real estate assets. Satisfying this growing demand poses challenges to the construction industry that remains in its infancy in many parts of the continent. The need to build facilities that maintain a constant, high quality operating environment, necessitates a high level of redundancy to be built into the design, which requires stringent delivery and control process throughout procurement and construction. With no margin for error or acceptance for downtime, the facilities adopt elements of sixth sigma meeting the five nines requirement (99.999%) for uptime.
The project manager’s role becomes increasingly more vital in understanding and managing the design and procurement process, leveraging the experience of delivery in often challenging geographies. Unlike developmental states, some African countries have inherent challenges that rely heavily on a solid understanding of the local environment.
Good project management seeks to deliver complex projects to a client’s expectation on time and within budget. While many elements of project delivery are geographically agnostic, there are several African-specific challenges when it comes to delivering mission critical facilities.
Such projects are power-hungry, but reliable power supplies are not always available. They often involve a lengthy design and technical due diligence approval process in the face of an evolving legal and political backcloth. The need to import specialized equipment, most commonly from Europe, America and China, can also result in long lead times, with COVID extenuating these.
Africa is far from a homogeneous market, with more countries (54) than states in the US. No two countries are identical, and many are characterized by significant geographical, political and environmental differences. There are also substantial cultural, linguistic and historical differences, resulting in markets across Africa being at very different stages in their development cycle and level of real estate maturity. Nevertheless, a clear distinction can be drawn between major cities such as Nairobi and Kinshasa, which act as epicenters that provide access to reliable power supply, significant levels of labour and interregional digital cables, enabling remote locations to benefit from lower land costs, less competition and quicker delivery timelines.
Other challenges include the shortage of local expertise from labour migration, the need to import many critical components and limited access to capital. While none of these factors are unique to Africa, the combination poses significant challenges to delivering mission critical infrastructure across the continent.
As with other sectors of the real estate market, digital solutions such as BIM, Autodesk Construction Cloud (ACC) and Digital Twin are becoming increasingly important in delivering all asset classes especially mission critical infrastructure across Africa.
The acceleration of technology in recent years has given rise to the adoption of digital delivery solutions in project management and cost management. It is no longer a nice-to-have function within construction. However, the challenge is often in the application of multiple and non-integrated software solutions at different stages of a project life cycle across project teams. This makes it difficult to capture and access accurate data.
Collaboration is key to the future of construction technology, with more advanced and integrated user-friendly platforms, to facilitate project planning and construction phases as building designs are complex and construction budgets gets tighter.
Sustainability and environmental considerations are coming to the fore in Africa ahead of the COP27 in Cairo in November. It is imperative that project managers recognize the need to ensure environmental considerations are kept at the forefront of the planning, design and delivery process. An increased number of clients in Africa now realize that incorporating energy efficient features in their data centers and other mission critical projects makes both financial and environmental sense. While such features may increase a projects initial capital costs, this is outweighed by lower operating costs over the life span of the project.
More sophisticated life cycle costing is highlighting the financial advantages of incorporating sustainability initiatives in projects across Africa. In many cases this will prove to be the right thing commercially as well as for the planet.
The specifics of the environmental initiatives will clearly vary between projects, but many will revolve around the need to drive better efficiency and eventually target ‘embodied’ sustainability. Good project management will ensure these factors are built into their client’s mindsets as early in the delivery process as possible to facilitate planning.
Global investors are recognizing the growing market for mission critical infrastructure across the African continent with increased interest from data centre operators impeded by the availability of land in many major markets. According to JLL’s Data Centre Outlook H1 2022, significant data centre developments across Africa are expected in the second half of the year.
More capital is also expected into the sector with U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) first disbursement of $83 million of $300 million loan to Africa Data Centres to expand critical information and communications technology infrastructure in South Africa, Kenya, and other countries in the region.
This expansion is expected to unlock approximately 31.3 megawatts of IT load capacity in the next three years and create over 100 direct formal jobs, as Africa seeks to create the scalable, efficient and resilient infrastructure required to support the adoption of world class cloud services.
The successful delivery of investments such as this will require project management capability that combine technology and environmental considerations into an effective digital delivery program with the right level of expertise and geographical presence. The extent to which this sector is able to do so, will go a long way to ensure the successful delivery of the wide range of new mission critical infrastructure required by both public and private sectors across Africa.