Data justice Data security Datafication

Is data Africa’s new oil?

World Economic Forum on Africa

The 28th World Economic Forum on Africa, named ‘Shaping Inclusive Growth and Shared Futures in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, took place 4-6 September in 2019. The conference tackled various issues related to economic growth, modernization, sustainability, health and partnerships. The event focused on how to scale up the transformation of regional architecture related to smart institutions, investment, integration, industry and innovation.

The meeting addressed the African Union’s Agenda 2063 regional strategic priorities by dividing its agenda into four programme tracks:

  • Innovation: Readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution
  • Cooperation: Sustainable Development & Environmental Stewardship
  • Growth: Digitalization & Competitive Industries
  • Stability: Leadership & Institutional Governance

One discussion stood out as it had an intriguing and very trendy title ‘Is data Africa’s new oil?’. With the global volume of data expected to quadruple by 2025, the discussion aimed to explore how can Africans seize the opportunity.

African Union agenda 2063 poster
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The key thoughts

Moderated by Kenyan journalist and TV presenter Edith Kimani, the discussion had Alex Liu, managing partner and Chairman at A.T. Kearney Inc. in the US, Murat Sönmez, managing director and head of the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Global Network at the WEF and Frans Cronje, co-founder and CEO at the Data Prophet in South Africa as panellists.

The discussion could have benefited from a representative from a governing body such as African Union, East African Community or other to touch on their role and ambitions towards data storing and processing. Nevertheless, the participants have raised some very important points which are vital to pay attention to sooner rather than later:

  • There is not much usable data in Africa, most often it is not fit for processing and rather suitable for compliance;
  • Reliable and inclusive data can help to improve many national and international processes;
  • There are plenty of examples of data mistreatment (present in Africa also), so it is important to start thinking about data extraction, data collection, data ownership, data processing, etc.;
  • Setting-up infrastructure for data collection is crucial – a key focus should be on minimising digital divide so that data could truly be representative and not only reflect the needs and lifestyles of those who have access to technology, are more privileged, etc.;
  • Trusting data is still an issue – most data processing is based on statistical models. It highly depends on who writes them, what is their aim and situational context. AI may not be the answer as it is like a clockwork orange – builds algorithms based on what is already available (one of our CyberTalkers Dovile Soendergaard has touched on this issue recently);
  • There is a danger of digital colonization of Africa in the near future;
  • There is no good role model for treating data, so Africa will need to figure out its own approach towards data. Data policy, cybersecurity, cross-border, power relations, etc. – all should be considered;
  • Data should not be treated like oil in Africa – after all, the ‘black gold’ has worked like a curse for the continent in many cases.
Is data the new oil?
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Another view

However, many researchers on data in the Global South would probably have a slightly different opinion regarding the future in terms of data and Africa. Although many agree that there is lack of good quality data which can be used for many purposes and analysed from many angles, data as a by-product of  fast technology adoption has been more and more widely used by researchers and policymakers (Taylor and Schroeder, 2014). Also, data is usually just one part of the picture – it does not reflect the emotions and capabilities of the individual about whom it is collected (Cinnamon, 2019). For example, although access to ICT is quite widespread in Africa, one not only requires skills to be able to use it, but also the capabilities to benefit from it. Hence, while it is very important to think about data collection and data ownership, data interpretation and perhaps using another criterion in decision-making should be high on the agenda too.

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