Sunday Tribune

Africa’s digital economic: colonisers’ next target


AFRICA lost its natural resources during the past (First, Second and Third) Industrial Revolution­s and the trend will continue, during the Fourth Industrial Revolution, unless something is done about it.

During the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Africa will not lose natural resources but virtual resources, such as its data and informatio­n that will be key during this era.

In response, the South African government is starting to do something about the imminent threat to the future of the African digital economy.

On April 1 this year, Minister of Communicat­ions and Digital Technologi­es Stella Ndabeni published a Draft National Data and Cloud Policy (Draft Policy) with an invitation for interested parties to submit written submission­s to the Department of Communicat­ions and Digital Technologi­es within 30 business days of publicatio­n of the draft policy, by May 18.

Why is such a policy interventi­on necessary? In what sense are African countries, including South Africa, likely to lose their resources?

Simply put, the future of the economy will be largely driven by data and informatio­n.

Technologi­es such as artificial intelligen­ces will require massive data to be effective and useful.

Data ownership will be equivalent to owning the means of production. As an example, in the health sector, South Africa will need to foresee threatenin­g diseases, to develop vaccines, and to develop health solutions that will prevent future pandemics.

In the absence of health data ownership, South Africa and other African countries will still depend on foreign countries to develop necessary health solutions.

In the health sector alone, the continent might lose out on the health technology economy that will largely depend on health data.

Other sectors of the economy will also require data, think education, finance, agricultur­e, and others. Failure to own data could lead to a situation where decisions about the continent are made elsewhere. Control of operations within the continent could be influenced from other parts of the world.

Take Uber as an example. From the US, a group of technologi­sts, with just a push of a button, are able to control transporta­tion on the continent. Someone at Uber can wake up tomorrow and increase the price of transporta­tion without consulting local transport authoritie­s.

They can decide how African societies are transporte­d. All this is possible without anyone from Uber being present in an African country.

In addition, Uber can sell the data to planners who need to understand traffic movement on the continent. Again, this is possible because Uber has traffic and transporta­tion data at its disposal.

Picture the same scenario in other sectors of the economy where the technology is developed and data resides elsewhere.

Because of this, it is therefore important for African countries to understand that, in the future, natural resources will no longer be a source of revenue. Instead it will be virtual resources such as data and, more importantl­y, its ownership.

European countries understand this. As a result, they have developed measures to ensure that they own their data. This has moved tech companies such as Microsoft to comply and ensure that they make this possible.

Recently, Microsoft announced a new pledge for the EU (EU) and it is calling it the EU Data Boundary for the Microsoft Cloud.

What this means is that commercial or public sector customers of Microsoft in the EU will be able to process and store all their data in the

EU. In other words, Microsoft will not need to move its data outside the EU.

This commitment will apply across all Microsoft’s core cloud services – Azure, Microsoft 365, and Dynamics 365. Microsoft is beginning work immediatel­y on this added step, and we will be able to complete it by the end of next year. This step by Microsoft will ensure that Europe keeps its data and it is made possible because European leaders can foresee how important data will be in the future.

What is stopping the AU from developing laws that will safeguard the data sovereignt­y of the African continent?

Steps by the South African government in this regard should be considered by other African countries to avoid a loss of data control.

The following key suggested policy interventi­ons indicate that South Africa is starting to take data seriously.

According to the draft policy, the plan is to establish a single data regulatory authority as well as an Advisory Council comprising members of the public, private and academic sectors to advise on data management standards, best practices, guidelines, and to develop a regulatory framework to manage data and cloud services.

As expected, these steps are being challenged by those who prefer the status quo.

Some have accused the South African government of trying to violate data privacy and they go on to indicate that the steps would threaten foreign investment. The European attempt at protecting its data sovereignt­y has not threatened investment so far, instead it is supported across the globe.

Africa should do whatever it takes to ensure that what happened with its natural resources will not happen with its virtual resources, its data, and other key resources of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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