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THE BIG QUESTION      Is data the new oil?

With AI and machine learning on the rise across the continent, here's why Africa is set to lead the data revolution

Illustration by John Devolle

The fourth industrial revolution is here – and Africa is so well placed to own it that the continent could be on the verge of transformation. The first industrial revolution harnessed water and steam, the second gave us mass production and the third deployed digital technology, but the raw power for the fourth revolution is data – dubbed “the new oil” by Kai-Fu Lee, CEO of Sinovation Ventures and author of the book AI Superpowers.

"First the good news: data can solve so many of the continent’s problems. Health, lifestyle, financial and crime data can help build safer cities, stronger economies and healthier populations."
Stephen Armstrong

Unlike oil, data is created by people, not geology, so Africa is well placed to reap the rewards of this revolution. The continent’s population is the fastest growing in the world; by 2050, the UN predicts that one in every four people in the world will be African. This population boom is akin to an increase in oil reserves – something Saudi Arabia can only dream of. How should Africans take advantage of this huge potential?

"Africa has a large, untapped pool of tech talent already showing a passion for AI, prompting Google to launch an AI research centre in Ghana and a start-up accelerator in Nigeria."
Stephen Armstrong

First the good news: data can solve so many of the continent’s problems. Health, lifestyle, financial and crime data can help build safer cities, stronger economies and healthier populations. South African non-profit Harambee, for instance, helps young people find work by combining geographical and personal preference data.

Kenyan/Rwandan company Hepta Analytics is working with the Rwandan government to blend agricultural data with satellite imaging to calculate optimum planting times; and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo an app using machine learning gives early warnings of disease in banana leaves. 

The app was “trained” by looking at 18,000 pictures of diseased plants.

“Africans should be paranoid right now. You have to create, collect and protect your data or someone else will."
Alex Liu

Unlike oil, data’s value is very specific. If I inherit a tanker full of crude, I can sell it anywhere. If Amazon sends me its last five years of data, that’s useless to me. Amazon’s data is worth billions to Amazon and Africa’s data is worth billions to Africans. Rightly employed it can be used to improve infrastructure, crop yields and livelihoods the continent over. 

The capacity is there: Africa has a large, untapped pool of tech talent already showing a passion for AI, prompting Google to launch an AI research centre
in Ghana and a start-up accelerator in Nigeria. But for this to work across the continent and help every different kind of African, data has to be borderless and owned by Africans. However, in 2019 only around half of all African countries have any formal data legislation or have laws in the pipeline. 

“Africans should be paranoid right now,” warns Alex Liu, chairman of consulting firm AT Kearney. “You have to create, collect and protect your data or someone else will. With the right framework, innovations in the food, health, public and services sectors will offer a wave of entrepreneurship and job creation. But we need to start now.”

In detail

The Lion and the Unicorn
Three African start-ups – online retailer Jumia Group, mobile company Cell C and food supplier Promasidor Holdings – were valued at over $1bn this year. Meanwhile, investment in African start-ups reached record levels in 2018, raising a record $725.6m across 458 deals. 

Internet Explosion
African nations are the fastest-growing internet communities. Western Sahara’s users alone grew almost 400 per cent between 2018-19 and half of Sub-Saharan Africans will be using the mobile internet regularly by 2025.

Bank the Unbanked

Fintechs like Tala, Branch and Jumo use alternative data – social media and mobile use and psychometric data – rather than banking history when targeting potential customers for digital loans. You no longer need a bank account to start a business.