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How Africa Can Achieve Data Sovereignty

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Picture: Pexels – Africa occupies a disadvantaged and subordinate position in the booming global data economy, say the writers.

By Goitseone Maswabi and Sizo Nkala

DIGITAL data is poised to take over as the world’s biggest source of economic growth. The world-renowned McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the data-fuelled AI industry can add US$13 trillion to the global economy by 2030.

Frontier Economics asserts that increased data sharing and trust in data ecosystems can unlock between 0.7 percent and 2 percent of the GDP. In a 2021 study, the World Economic Forum (WEF) argued that the prudent harnessing and management of data in a few economic sectors in India could add half a trillion dollars to the country’s economy by 2025.

Further, a 10 percent increase in mobile internet penetration in Africa has the potential to boost the continent’s GDP by 2.5 percent. It is not just in the economy, data-driven AI (artificial intelligence) applications can also have a hugely positive impact on a country’s military advantage that makes data a highly strategic asset.

Yet Africa occupies a disadvantaged and subordinate position in the booming global data economy which, if not addressed, will condemn the continent to the losing side of the much-hyped Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). This was the verdict of the experts who addressed a webinar on data sovereignty organised by the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies last Friday.

The continent’s data economy is dominated and controlled by the American and, to a lesser extent, the Chinese global tech titans, such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Huawei, and Microsoft. Most of the digital data produced by Africa’s over 590 million internet users and the millions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices is appropriated and sent to distant data centres owned and operated by the big tech companies.

Without adequate infrastructure, skills, and capital, African countries find themselves in highly asymmetrical and dangerously dependent relationships with big tech companies. In return for providing internet ‘free’ services such as social media, search engines, video streaming, payment services, messaging, weather forecasts, retailing and e-hailing apps, big tech companies harvest enormous amounts of critical personal and non-personal information from their users.

The big tech is able to collect highly personal data about the location, health and even emotional states of hundreds of millions of African users on their apps without due regard to their rights to consent, privacy, and safety. This is a phenomenon the speakers called extractive panopticon surveillance, whose logic resembles that of yesteryear colonial processes.

Sensitive government and industrial data are also kept in the infrastructure of the same big tech, placing national security and sovereignty in jeopardy.

This data is transferred to data centres located in the mother countries of the tech companies, fed to their algorithms and used to create digital products that are sold to businesses and other organisations. The people and entities from which data is generated do not share in the huge profits accumulated from the selling of their data.

As such, African countries occupy the least-rewarding upstream part of the data value chain in which they produce raw data. As a result, the continent and its citizens draw little economic benefit from their data.

Finding itself in an inequitable and exploitative global data economy, the speakers have agreed that the way forward for Africa and other developing regions is to pursue data sovereignty. Defined as the governance of data in accordance with a country’s laws, values and interests, data sovereignty has become a topical issue in global politics.

Most African countries, including South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria, have taken the data sovereignty route. The data legislation that has been adopted in these countries demands the localisation of personal data, respect for privacy, the importance of user consent, granting users ownership of their data and the limited processing of personal data.

However, the experts expressed concern that the big tech cannot be trusted to comply with the new data protection laws. Hence African governments must find effective ways of enforcing the data regulations. In its quest to move up the data value chain, South Africa’s proposed policy, the National Cloud and Data Policy seek to establish technological independence by developing data storage and processing capabilities.

One of the major proposals was the establishment of a High-Performance Computing and Data Processing Centre (HPCDPC) endowed with processing and cloud computing capacity that will hold data produced by government, businesses, universities, and research institutions, among other entities.

Senegal has also established a national data centre built with the help of Chinese entities. While this may help the country process and draw value from its own data, the reliance on foreign entities to build such critical infrastructure places data sovereignty in potential jeopardy.

Further, the speakers at the webinar were of the view that data sovereignty at the national level was not viable. As building a vibrant data economy is dependent on scale, the experts emphasized the need for African countries at a continental level to take advantage of the continent’s market of 1.3 billion people.

It is important that Africa works towards achieving a pan-African legal framework that will shape unique data sovereignty for the Continent in accordance with its values and interests. Africa would benefit from the adoption of a consolidated regulatory framework, guided by the African Union (AU).

The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa is one such framework that aims to ensure Africa owns modern digital management tools. Some of the Digital Transformation Strategy’s main objectives include the establishment of a Digital Single Market, achieving universal access to the internet and digital services, the localisation of African data, a trusted data exchange system, and the development of digital skills and entrepreneurship.

Such frameworks as the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection need to be ratified and enforced as they will be the anchors of the envisaged digital single market. The Malabo Convention advocates for the intra-African free flow of data that will eventually aid in developing a sustainable digital space in Africa and growing Africa’s data economy.

In spite of the forward-looking provisions made in the Malabo Convention, only ten member states have ratified it. In order for it to come into force, sixteen member states would need to ratify it.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is a huge step forward for African states. It aims to significantly reduce the barriers to trade by facilitating intra-Africa trade across all sectors of Africa’s economy.

Taking into consideration the proliferation of digitisation and innovation, which has been further accelerated by Covid-19 restrictions, a significant portion of intra-regional trade is expected to be conducted electronically.

e-Commerce requires that a significant amount of personal data moves across jurisdictions. This type of trade can only take place in an environment where personal consumer data, such as names, physical addresses, and email addresses, can be collected and processed across borders.

The movement of personal data across e-Commerce platforms presents a security challenge as data may be compromised along the value chain. This, however, also presents an opportunity for the market to be regulated through the enforcement of the Malabo Convention.

African states need to increase data ownership, not only through regulation but also through the building, financing and maintenance of necessary infrastructure. Data centres are a practical mechanism that will help meet the demands set by data protection regulations.

Data centres are physical repositories where data can be stored, processed and disseminated. The benefit of data centres to data sovereignty is that consumer data is stored in localized access-restricted facilities.

The African continent will need at least 700 data centre facilities in order to meet the demands of current data protection regulations. Currently, there are only 82 data centres spread out across Africa; with South Africa accounting for 32 percent of all data centres in Africa.

A lack of infrastructure, funding shortages, a warm climate, skills deficit and an unreliable supply of electricity are some of the challenges that can be attributed to the slow pace of building and operating data centres in Africa. This stifles the growth of Africa’s data economy.

Africa cannot afford to be on the periphery of the global data economy. The future of Africa’s development hinges on how the continent can exploit its data. Without controlling its own data, the continent will be used to develop cutting-edge AI technology in other countries in economic, scientific, and military domains, thus further entrenching dependency and inequality.

Hence, it is imperative that African leaders push back against the dominance of foreign big tech in the African data market by insisting on data sovereignty.

However, for data sovereignty to be effective, it must be coordinated at the continental level through the adoption and enforcement of continent-wide regulations underpinned by shared values and interests.

Africa must also pursue technological independence and work with trusted partners in building its digital infrastructure to avoid strategic dependency and breaches of faith. Only through a concerted continental effort can Africa achieve data sovereignty and establish its presence in the new world data order.

Nkala is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow (PDRF) at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS)

Maswabi is a Research and Media Coordinator at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS)

This article is original to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.