Big Data and Africa 4.0

Image: 9 pillars of industry 4.0 Source:

It has often been stated that “Data is the new oil” and whilst the connotation behind this statement is understood by some, it partially downplays the power and significance of data. To a large degree, data is more valuable than oil and is perhaps the most valuable commodity that is globally in existence today.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), has ushered in a new era of economic disruption with uncertain socio-economic consequences for Africa. However, Africa has been left behind and often been the last to adopt in previous industrial revolutions. The question at hand is will this time be different?

The Local Development Research Institute (LDRI) is conducting a research study on the state of big data for development in Africa. This is an extensive project to identify existing and current uses of big data and its technologies relating to social and economic development of the continent. Analysis on its application in key sectors such as agriculture, energy and healthcare will help the LDRI identify the key actors, intermediaries and ecosystems in the production and use of big data, their capacities, achievements and limitations hindering development. Read more here.

The private sector has led the way in adopting technological advancements. The bigger, more prominent corporate firms within the continent are more likely to have already started working on projects involving big data. Both Nigeria and Kenya have at least 40% of businesses who are in the planning stages of a big data project compared with the global average of 51%; and only 24% of medium companies in the two countries are planning big data projects. It’s imperative for companies to align themselves to be big data ready in order to capitalise in the data economy and subsequently experience commercial growth.

In order for developing countries in Africa to move towards a better data ecosystem and subsequently improve its economic potential from a continental perspective, there must be a strategic plan to not only invest in big data but also learn from nations who are the forefront of innovation and adopt accordingly and more importantly - with efficiency.

Even in its early stages, the benefits of the data revolution can already be seen in Africa. The presence of reliable data has enabled several African countries to revise the methods they use to measure their Gross Domestic Product to accurately represent their economies. From this, Nigeria’s GDP nearly doubled from 270 billion to 510 billion between 2013 and 2014 whereas Kenya moved to a lower middle income country from a low income country (UNDP, 2016). One of the causes of this growth was that previously some sectors were omitted from the national income accounting because they were in informal areas and lacked the needed data.

A crucial aspect for Africa to explore is the immediate value of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to its overall GDP - in other words, an additional layer of intelligence that is brought about by the 4.0 industry is an essential component to the immediate growth of GDP of the individual nations and in turn the continent at large which has the potential to unlock an unprecedented and substantial amount of commercial capital for Africa.

However, for any of these benefits to become reality, Africa needs specialists who are proficient in big data techniques. Universities on the continent need to start teaching how big data can be used to find solutions to scientific problems. A sophisticated economy requires specialists who are skilled in big data techniques.

Governmental heads of state and policymakers in Africa, over the next decade or so have important decisions to make, and such decisions will ultimately determine the scalability of benefits or hindrances the continent and its people will realise. Rather than drilling for oil, Africa should work towards and focus their attention on building an infrastructure that is suitable for the data economy

In conclusion, harnessing the power of technology as well as the potential of the data economy, is vital to not only meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in Africa but also The Africa Agenda 2063 (which you can read here). Unless a fully-fledged strategy is created and implemented, Africa could easily fall behind and once again be subject to dependence on other countries as opposed to establishing itself as a strong, influential global player and partner.

By Joshua Babatunde - Incoming MA Big Data Student at King's College London

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