OPINION: Data breaches are mounting in Africa. Here’s how to stop them

by Bitange Ndemo | Nairobi Business School
Thursday, 16 June 2022 14:42 GMT

People look at data on their mobiles as background with internet wire cables on switch hub is projected in this picture illustration taken May 30, 2018. Picture taken May 30, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration

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Africa’s future depends on both better data and a data governance framework to encourage innovation and better decision-making

Bitange Ndemo is a professor of entrepreneurship in the Department of Business Administration at the University of Nairobi’s Business School.

High-quality data capable of shaping policy is increasingly available across Africa but collecting it can be challenging, particularly given the risk of regional data breaches occurring at unprecedented rates. 

Only a robust governance framework can preserve data in the modern global economy.

For too long, Africa has suffered as dubious data compromises decision-making. African countries pursued policies favouring smallholder farmers based on inaccurate information, according to a 2017 World Bank investigation.

At the same time, the continent has reaped the benefits of vigorous and widespread data, ranging from satellite imagery providing details on temperature, rainfall, soil quality, vegetation, and nighttime illumination, to Google Maps, offering information on transportation and movement across borders.

So, too, has data inspired new ways of thinking about economic development. In 2014, for example, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia rebased their GDP due in part to advances in information and communications technologies.

Finally, locally generated data by mobile companies leveraging the emerging Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers unique opportunities like credit scoring now widely used to provide non-collateralized loans. 

Other 4IR technologies, that is, Big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), can also leverage data and information to create new value driving economic development.

Some of this data is generated outside of Africa. Startups have addressed emerging needs through more productive and inclusive business models, but the continent must still establish longer-term, sustainable collaborations.

Africa must also address the inherent risk in private companies—most of them foreign—possessing vast amounts of personal data.

In particular, key participants in this evolving conversation have debated how to address issues around cross-border data flows in instances where governments lack jurisdiction to act.

The challenge, broadly speaking, is how to best protect data while encouraging its innovations within an enabling and stable environment.

The global debate on data governance has forced African countries to rethink their governance policies.

Many existing policies allow data to be misused under the guise of innovation; what the continent requires then, are data principles such as purpose limitation (staying lean), integrity and confidentiality (building security), and transparency (engaging users to help them understand how their data are used).

So, too, does the continent require a culture that encourages responsible sharing. Each African country has an opportunity to benchmark against global norms and to build capability to use the data for new innovations. Taking advantage of established governance frameworks could stimulate public and private sectors to exploit the potential that data presents.

The African Union Digital Transformation Strategy recommends the creation of a data policy framework, a policy that would promote Africa's integration, generate inclusive economic growth, stimulate job creation, bridge the digital divide, eradicate poverty, and bolster the continent's socioeconomic development.

That said, a continent-wide policy would lack legitimacy in individual countries that have undertaken their own efforts to improve data quality. In the health services industry, for example, and through a streamlined data collection (analysis) process known as the Consolidated Framework for Implementation Research (CFIR), Mozambique, Rwanda, and Zambia, have improved primary health care levels and stimulated evidence-based decision-making.

Africa’s future depends on both better data and a data governance framework to encourage innovation and better decision-making. As with many policies, balance is key: Data’s potential to transform lives is profound, but so too are its risks. Data that is incomplete, inaccurate, or misused leads to bad policies and misleading interpretations that undermine economic development and stifle change during a dynamic period when the continent must keep pace with the rest of the world.