This issue of Africa in Fact starts with a very basic premise, namely that governments cannot plan for what they do not know. Or to put it another way, “accurate, accessible and intelligible data is critical to inclusive development and governance in Africa”. 

In this issue, we take a closer look at the Data Revolution. We examine Africa’s place in it, and what it will take for the continent to ensure it is willing – and able – to maximise its potential to use the technological advances in this new Age of Data. Full participation in the Data Revolution is of relevance as the continent grapples with policymaking and governance frameworks that will ensure it reaches the development goals set out in the UN’s 2030 agenda and the African Union’s own agenda 2063. 

There is evidence, including in the excellent work done by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, that strong statistical capacity is a key enabler of good governance. This means that countries capable of producing high-quality statistics tend to perform better in delivering services to their citizens.  

The importance of data, therefore, in informing policy in education, health, commerce, and agriculture, for example, makes it critical that all stakeholders understand the state of data in Africa, and identify deficits at continental, regional, national and community levels. 

This is one of the main points Good Governance Africa researcher Pranish Desai makes in his overview of the state of data on the continent. Currently, the main entities responsible for the state of data in Africa are the national statistical offices (NSOs), which are responsible for conducting large-scale data collection drives, including data collected and published by other ministries such as education, health, immigration, and labour. However, he writes, in too many countries these offices lack the resources and capacity to satisfactorily do so. 

Unsurprisingly, Desai notes, some of the countries with the weakest NSOs are “fragile states”, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, and South Sudan.  

 Covid-19 has thrown a harsh light on Africa’s data deficits, although as the articles in our latest issue demonstrate, innovation is happening across the continent, albeit unevenly, and many governments have embraced initiatives to improve the quality and quantity of data. 

Explaining why data centres hold the key to Africa’s digital drive, political economist Ronak Gopaldas points out that the continent is one of the fastest-growing data usage regions in the world, a trend that has been accelerated by the pandemic. Local data centres, he writes, will become increasingly valuable as the global digital economy grows, evidenced by the growing interest in Africa by the worlds major cloud service providers such as Microsoft, Google and Oracle. However, given Africa’s energy deficit, scaling its data centres must go hand in hand with solving its energy conundrum. 

Contributor Issa Sikiti da Silva reminds us that while the data required for proper decisionmaking may be lacking due to funding constraints, there are other impediments, for example, data on sensitive topics that is not shared with the public because it is classified, or simply ignored by decisionmakers and planners. 

“While good data help improve policies and strengthen monitoring,” he writes, they can also be tampered with for propaganda and populist purposes.” 

Pertinent to that point, Michael Schmidt takes a close look at Africa’s “data deserts”. Although data gaps are not unique to Africa, he notes, the continent faces multiple challenges in that regard. A third of the continent is either unadministered, under-administered or run by barely recognised authorities, he writes. Civil instability beyond a decade, as in Somalia and the Central African Republic, also creates permanent gaps in the statistical record that cannot be repaired. 

In a region beset with the sort of challenges outlined above, Africa’s small but committed contingent of data-driven journalists are working on the frontline, using their skills to expose corruption and hold governments accountable. As the African Data Revolution Report 2018 put it,Not only [do data-driven journalists] play a crucial role in open elections, they continue to play a key part in promoting government transparency, advocacy of marginalised communities, and building stronger democratic structures.” 

Deputy CEO of Code for Africa Chris Roper’s article looks at how data-driven investigative journalism is one way of empowering civil society. The use of machine learning platforms, he writes, can help investigative journalists to identify the hidden agents behind disinformation. 

The continent has certainly not been short of initiatives to promote data-driven policy making and development. These include The African Charter on Statistics (2009); The African Data Consensus (2015); and the biannual Africa Data Revolution Report, first published in 2016.  

And there has been progress. Almost nine out of 10 Africans live in a country that has conducted a census in the past decade, while 99% live in a country that has conducted a household survey in that time. 

On the other hand, other basic statistics are patchy at best. Four out of five African births occur in a country without a complete registration system. And too many countries lack an accurate record of how many people die, when and how. Basic stuff, but all essential in allocating resources and service delivery. 

But we also cannot ignore the darker aspects of a digital-driven world. Data offers authoritarian governments a powerful tool for surveillance and controlling dissent. And the tools for collecting and analysing data raise serious questions about personal rights to privacy – and the balance between using data for public good versus personal protection.  

Still, there’s no doubt that digital technology offers a powerful tool to improve the lives of millions of Africans living in poverty.  

The proliferation of mobile banking and financial services is one example. Another is the positive effect data has had on recent elections. Ghana, Kenya and Burkina Faso have held peaceful democratic elections, relatively free of contestation, in what have been fraught political environments.  

One positive outcome in Kenya, contributor Justus Wanzala writes, is that on 4 March this year, prior to the next presidential election in August, the country’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) signed an MoU with the Kenya Editors’ Guild and Kenya Union of Journalists (KUJ) to enhance access to information for furthering the democratic process in the country.  

 The transformative potential of the 4IR for Africa is enormous. But, it is vitally important that all stakeholders understand and accept that Africa’s data revolution is a joint responsibility – of governments, academia, the private sector, civil society, and international agencies. 

Without cooperation on this scale, Africa risks being left behind, as she was in the first, second and third industrial revolutions. We cannot afford to let that happen. 

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Susan Russell is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s quarterly journal, Africa in Fact. She has worked in the media industry for more than 30 years as a journalist, editor, publisher, and as a general manager. Career highlights include several years working for Business Day and more than a decade as a reporter, editor and General Manager at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.