The Devil is in the Data

Michael Onsando
4 September ,2018

by Robert Munuku

Africa has been the hub of a rich cocktail of resources from potent extractive mineral deposits to diverse tourism-attracting flora and fauna coupled with tropical climate that supports agriculture – the backbone of many Sub-Saharan African economies. Many of these economies are making major gains in growth bolstered by substantial development in information technology; this has enabled the breakdown of geographical boundaries offering more opportunities to the market mobility of goods and services.

Given how fast information is moving in the 21st century, over-reliance and dependence on commodities has shifted to focus on service provision and data dissemination.  Lerato Mbele, a business journalist,  puts this best when he says, “What Africa lacks in infrastructure it compensates for in character. There are natural endowments of minerals; fertile agricultural lands; virgin industrial zones; plus a proud and resilient body-politic”

It is also worth noting that ICT has been used in most sectors of the economy invariably as a vehicle to spur business growth (e.g. mobile money transfer stage as a parallel and alternative to traditional banking).

M-Pesa, for example, has enabled many Kenyans to transfer money without the need of having bank accounts and the lengthy technical procedures that come with banking.   Mobile money was adopted by the other 3 telephony companies following stiff competition that the innovation posed from Safaricom which still enjoys the lion’s share of market capital.  Airtel has its equivalent mobile money transfer service named Zap; Orange Telkom has Iko Pesa; and, Yu Essar has Yu-Cas. This has further widened the landscape offering Kenyans more access to the facility that is now indispensable in everyday transactions like school fees payment, payment of utility bills, business transactions among other forms of financial transactions.

And that it is such a wide variety of transactions is widens the net from which data can be captured. As a result of this, data as a virtual commodity is growing fast. The Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) reported that 98% of the internet market share is through mobile platforms. This means that a majority of us access the internet through their mobile phones – a service one can acquire by attaining a basic feature phone that now retails as cheaply as Ksh2,000.  The growth momentum was well put in a joint article by both heads of Airtel and Safaricom, “[1]In the last quarter of 2010, something interesting happened in Africa; the number of mobile connections on the continent overtook those in Europe.  There has been a ten-fold increase in coverage over the past 10 years.”

SMEs (Small to Medium-sized Enterprises) and other small business persons are now exploiting the fast growing ICT sector to market and sell their products and services across geographical boundaries.


Obstacles to growth

The major obstacle to economic progress has always been poor leadership which usually breeds corruption and hence incompetence that eventually leads to poverty (& rampant insecurity). In many countries major steps have been made towards the democratization process but a lot still needs to be done to delink leadership from patronage and big governments. This would then see the rise of strong state-run institutions and subsequent service delivery.

The private sector which forms a bulk of GDP must also be empowered and given enough room to maneuver. “Public-private partnerships between governments and ICT players are another way that the telecoms industry can positively contribute to development in Africa. It is crucial for governments to create an enabling environment through enlightened regulatory regimes and supporting infrastructure.”

Another obstacle is not that the Africas lacks the requisite resources, but rather the necessary ‘bargaining power’ that is a demand of such markets. Major steps have been made on this with many attempts at regional integration through trading blocs of old, i.e. ECOWAS, EAC, COMESA, etc, along with economic legislation such as AGOA (Africa Growth & Opportunity Act instituted in the year 2000).  These trading blocs facilitate easier access to global market at the same time improving quality standards of products marketed abroad.   This notwithstanding many economists feel that the blocs can do better in their mandates.

Mobile money as a financial alternative to corporate banking is but a taste of the pliable nature of data or if you will, information velocity, that have now placed us on a critical geopolitical plane.

In the words of Aly-Khan Satchu, “The 21st century is not about the money, it’s about your brain-power.”

[1] Africa Forbes (Mock-up Issue 2011), ABN Publishing (Pty) Ltd South Africa


Robert Mũnũku is a visual artist, writer & filmmaker based in Nairobi. Mũnũku is also the founder of Mau Mau Collective which is an organization that seeks to create a strong network of independent visual artists, filmmakers & performing artists on the continent. Follow him on Twitter @robertmunuku

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