“[D]igital technology can give an unprecedented boost to sustainable development, particularly for the poorest countries.” This statement formed part of UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s intervention at the 17thInternet Governance Forum that took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in November and December last year. Building on the now widely accepted notion that technology is a pillar of development, GVG’s latest media roundtable gathered three panelists and several journalists from key African media outlets around the topic Technology and Big Data: Allies for Africa’s Digital Future. The panelists, James Claude from GVG, G.K. Ndungu, economist, public policy analyst, and governance expert, and Mugambi Laibuta, Advocate of the High Court of Kenya, answered six questions aiming to bring forth insight on what needs to be done for technology and Big Data to meet expectations in terms of their anticipated positive impact on the continent’s development.
How are African governments using technology and data to improve public services and governance?
On the topic of public services and governance, James Claude pointed out that some African governments were already using ICTs to improve service delivery. It is indeed already possible, in many countries, to apply for a driver’s license and to pay utility bills online, for example. He however conceded that African governments could further leverage ICTs to enhance digital identity, reach the citizens more easily via the mobile networks, and collect and analyze data from various economic sectors to better oversee these sectors and support decision-making.
Building on James’s remarks, G.K. Ndungu stated that technology would improve civil registration services, making it easier for citizens to request and obtain birth and death certificates, for instance. He also discussed the role of data technology in helping governments fulfill their responsibility to produce economic data for planning and reporting purposes and to foster public participation.
How can technology help to promote sustainable development in Africa?
According to James, Big Data technology is governments’ “best ally” when it comes to assessing the impact of regulations and promoting fintech-led financial inclusion, with a view to supporting sustainable growth. He explained that regulation could make or break fintech like Mobile Money (MM), and that technology could effectively support the creation of appropriate policies by providing the necessary data.
As an example, he mentioned the fact that the development of MM was lagging in regions other than East Africa due to unsupportive regulation. He recommended that governments leverage the spread of MM on the continent to pay public servants and allow citizens to pay their taxes. He also said they should take advantage of data technology to gain insight into key economic sectors and optimize their governance. It is therefore important to focus on investment and the implementation of relevant infrastructure in the ICT sector, he added.
How can technology and data enable innovation that leads to better outcomes for banks, regulators and the most vulnerable consumers (women, the elderly, and the physically challenged)?
James answered that technology was already doing just that, even though there was still room for improvement. Mobile Money, he offered as an example, has been facilitating payments for people living in remote areas. However, Big Data analytics allows governments to identify vulnerable consumers and thus to better serve them. It, therefore, needs to be built upon in that respect. James also recommended that governments to leverage technology to enforce KYC, to fight fraud and ensure the security of the digital payment ecosystem.
To this, Mugambi Laibuta added some important regulatory considerations. He is of the opinion that when it comes to e-government services, the payment ecosystem should be backed by “a solid act of Parliament” taking into account digital literacy, procurement, discrimination and data protection issues. Procurement, for example, is particularly relevant in the case of AI, which is often trained using data not sourced in Africa and could thus be biased against certain population groups. Discrimination can also be introduced when government systems are moved online without first solving the identification problem.
G.K. Ndungu concluded by agreeing that technological innovation should be further investigated to facilitate access to services for disabled people.
What is the current state of the law and regulation governing AI in Africa?
Mugambi Laibuta stated that in Africa, there was a gap in the law in relation to the use of AI for decision-making purposes. According to him, appropriate regulation should require that the citizens be informed of the fact that AI technology is involved in decision-making processes. It should also address the issue of algorithmic colonization. Africa lacks an AI Act that would deal with issues of transparency and accountability, he said.
Adding to Mugambi’s intervention about AI bias and algorithmic colonization, James highlighted that successful technologies are the ones that consider the local aspect. In other words, the technology should be adapted to the African market.
G.K. Ndungu, for his part, spoke of the need to align government functions and what is happening in the technology space, and to “reinvigorate the regulatory philosophy”.
What do you see as the greatest challenges facing both governments and society as a whole in relation to the deployment of AI?
The challenges include pockets of inequality due to lack of connectivity or financial capacity, said G.K Ndungu. But also the fact that governments need to be fully accountable when it comes to AI, but are not willing to take that on.
James called for the development of an Africa-specific AI act that would take into account African realities, as well as for a regulatory harmonization supported by regional organizations like the African Union.
Before addressing the next and last question, Mugambi emphasized the need for regulatory harmonization. He used the example of the Data Protection Act, which was ratified by 33 African countries, but with each country having different provisions. One compliance framework would make more sense.
What are the general policies and strategies for managing the ethical and human rights issues raised by the deployment of AI?
When it comes to data protection and the right to data privacy, Mugambi explained that in Africa, even in countries where the Data Protection Act exists, there is not always a Data Protection Authority to enforce it. And if such an authority exists, it is not independent or well-funded. There are therefore some regulatory gaps when it comes to the protection of data in relation to the use of AI. However, he added, the Constitution of the country concerned can help solve disputes as it contains provisions related to human dignity and equality. So even in instances where the statutory environment is shaky, the Constitution can be called upon.
James concluded by highlighting the need to create a single digital market in Africa through regulatory harmonization, which requires the strict respect of data protection laws.
The following main ideas emerged from the discussion in relation to the harnessing of technology as a catalyst for Africa’s socio-economic development: the need for governments to include technology in their respective agenda and to create appropriate regulation as well as promote regulatory harmonization. GVG is working with governments to help them bring about these changes, by providing them with Big Data technologies that meet Africa’s specific requirements in terms of sector governance.
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