The private sector must do its part on data governance in Africa

The past decade has seen an acceleration in the digitalization of many aspects of our lives, including financial services, commerce, education and healthcare. Data collection and exchange has accelerated alongside this rapid adoption of digital engagement, and data has become the new essential commodity, with Africa as the next frontier. However, this rapid change raises governance and data privacy issues, especially as the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) progresses. As the tech sector waits for regulators to catch up, individual companies can do more to protect consumers on their own.

The new oil

Observing the commoditization of data and the resulting opportunities and challenges in Africa, it is hard to ignore that the analogy of data as “new oil” is powerful and prescient. The commercialization of this resource can unlock tremendous value for the continent in sectors critical to the development of thriving and connected economies. However, commercialization must be approached responsibly, as we have seen in the case of oil: if the exploitation of a resource is not well planned, unintended consequences – which generally fall on the most vulnerable of our societies – arise.

Opportunities for the private sector to scale up

For strong data protection on the continent, policymakers and the private sector must work together to create and implement workable regulations and best practices.

Tech companies shouldn’t wait to be the recipients of the policy. As subject matter experts in the complex value networks and core infrastructure (e.g., cloud computing) that underpin their business model, they must act quickly.

For strong data protection on the continent, policymakers and the private sector must work together to create and implement workable regulations and best practices. Given the experience of the private sector in managing relevant technical issues in this complex space, the role of technology companies in data governance should be twofold: 1) informing proposed policies and 2) creating and implementing their own high standards. These actions should include:

  • Set up a self-regulatory body (SRO) to improve the relevance and application of the data policy: Bottom-up innovations from startups and civil society networks are creating tools and forging a collective voice to fight data inequality, building a new social contract between the tech industry and citizens. In Southeast Asia, for example, the Indonesian fintech association serves as an SRO who works closely with the Financial authority Define and enforce data governance best practices.
  • Implement proportionate risk and accountability frameworks: Organizations are responsible for applying data protection frameworks establish a relationship of trust with all stakeholders. It’s important to note that the requirements should be robust yet handy. The accountability-based approach to data protection requires organizations to tailor policies that take into account business needs and the risk environment. This kind of engagement across the public, private and even social sectors can not only lead to better data protection for customers, but also to the development of standardized frameworks and approaches to increase the efficiency of doing business.
  • Invest in consumer education: As individuals, we make decisions about our data based on trade-offs: How much privacy do I have to give up in exchange for a service that is valuable to me? However, this data could be used for other purposes, often without consumers’ consent. Therefore, educating consumers about the different ways their data is used is essential. Although the financing of this education is generally supported by the government, the multilateral organizations and the foundations for digital public good, we see the private sector stepping up its efforts.
  • Establish safeguards against digital harm: Data can improve the lives of the poor; however, it can also open backdoors that can harm individuals, businesses, and societies. To address this tension between the useful and harmful potential of data, the World Bank World Development Report 2021: Data for Better Lives calls for a new social contract that enables the use and reuse of data to create economic and social value, ensures equitable access to that value, and builds trust that data will not be misused in harmful ways. Responsible artificial intelligence (AI) is a movement that ensures data-intensive AI systems are ethical and fair.
    Challenges of Disinformation and Digital Damage – The document of the World Economic Forum, Path to digital justice, focuses on the victim’s perspective of digital harm. Digital harm can happen to anyone and is especially difficult when the harm is online and in multiple jurisdictions. What is the possibility of reparation for the victim of digital damage? The harm goes beyond an individual victim; this could have a silent effect on women and minority groups, excluding them from participation in society.
  • Break down data silos and give consumers choices: It is important that consumer interests are protected. Additionally, value must be shared fairly between businesses and consumers, which requires proactively addressing issues such as data silos or complex consent artefacts that unfairly disadvantage consumers or competitors. Big Tech (Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter) formed the Data transfer project for an “open source service-to-service data portability platform, so that consumers can easily move their data between online service providers whenever they want”.

The powerful blend of digital and data technology can only provide better and sustainable future for the continent if there is a coherent action plan for infrastructure, governance and regulation. Africa needs a growth-oriented governance approach; such an approach will foster business innovation and ensure benefits are fairly distributed, while maximizing protections and minimizing harm to customers. The private sector should not wait for regulators to protect consumer data in Africa. We have to start now.

The powerful blend of digital and data technology can only provide better and sustainable future for the continent if there is a coherent action plan for infrastructure, governance and regulation.

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