Op-Ed: How data can unlock the future of Africa

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By Zandre Campos, CEO of ABO Capital

It was less than 10 years ago that the world’s most valuable resource was oil.  States would do all they could to ensure some sort of control over a portion of the oil economy. Some even went to war for it, and those that controlled the oil industry controlled the world.

However, as our society becomes more technologically driven, a new resource has taken oil’s place as the world’s most important commodity, and it does not exist in the physical plane. I am talking, of course, about data.

Data is reshaping the way we think and approach our world. It impacts every business and industry, from marketing to agriculture to health care. We see it in action every day in our lives. Did Amazon just recommend a product to you? They did that through your browsing and shopping data. Did you recently watch an ad on YouTube? Well, YouTube chose that ad based on its data analysis of your interests.

As data becomes more significant to our economy and a general state of life, it is essential for Africa to take the lead in this new data economy. Data is the key to unlocking the future potential of Africa. Luckily, Africa already has two of the most important pieces of any data set.

The first is its population. Africa has a fast-growing population that skews young. Africa is a very young country, with 60% of its population under the age of 25. That number is expected to go up by 42% by the year 2030. Currently, Africa constitutes about 20% of the world’s youth population, coming in at around 230 million people.

Perhaps more importantly, Africa’s middle-class population is also growing in both numbers and wealth. Consumer expenditures are expected to rise to $2.1 trillion in 2025 and $2.4 trillion in 2030. That is more than double the 2015 rates. Current household consumption is growing at a faster rate than average annual GDP, and Axios estimates that by 2020 more than half of all Africans will have discretionary income.

A rising, young middle class means more data and information will be available, creating a wellspring of untapped potential just waiting to be harvested. At the same time, these young minds can bring new ideas and inspirations to the African economy, spearheading an economic growth never seen before.

As more Africans have the income to spend, an increase in the use of personal electronic devices is expected as well. More will be using computers, smartphones, and other technological devices, all of which will contribute to the data that can be gathered.

The second piece of the puzzle is energy. Data management is expensive, requiring massive data centres that rely on significant portions of energy to sustain themselves. And they will need all the help they can get. The African data centre market is expected to grow more than 13% between 2018 and 2014, meaning the continent will need a massive increase in energy to match up with their data growth. Luckily, Africa is on the right path towards a cheaper and greener energy solution.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Africa is poised to lead the world in solar energy over the next 20 years. Solar energy is cheaper and more reliable than other forms of energy. Combined with the sunny conditions and growing energy need that comes with a massive population growth, the stage is set for an African energy boom that will give people across the continent electricity for the first time.

But it is not just private individuals that will benefit from this energy boost. Data companies will also be able to take advantage of this energy surplus. This will lead to new innovations and projects on local, national and international scales. From improving taxi services in South African cities to monitoring African climate change, data will pave the way for a smarter economy.

Some in Africa are already taking the necessary steps to ensure their spot at the top. Africa Data Centres, a pan-African company that provides data services, has already installed solar plants in Nairobi, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Data alone will not solve the issue. Africa needs to invest in data science too, in order to work with the data they compile. While Africa may be behind other nations in terms of data-analysis, those who adopt these practices will be able to catch on to the lessons learned from others soon enough. Africa is in need of more leadership development, key to which is the decision-making that lies in information analysis.

Of course, challenges await anyone that embraces the data economy. The balance between privacy and convenience must be maintained to secure public support, and international bodies must be set up to regulate the distribution and use of data in a globalized economy. However, with a young and eager population, I have no doubt that Africa will be able to rise to the challenge and fully embrace the new data economy.

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