NGFP African Futures

What we learned about the future of African digital societies

The Future of Healthy Digital Societies in Africa

What does the future of healthy digital societies in Africa look like? According to the participants of the African Data Governance program, regulations, policies and legislation are at the heart of that that future. Almost all participants in the program recognized the lack of regulations and policies that govern how various digital technologies are used within the continent.

Despite the efficiency-enhancing and facilitative roles that various digital technologies – fintech, social media, remote working, and even government services – play, there have to be policies and regulations that govern their relationships with the end users. Most of these digital technologies operate in a gray area that is not adequately regulated, leaving them with free rein to collect user data and employ such data for shrouded purposes. Consequently, there have to be fundamental rights safeguarding the digital data of people on the African continent.

Furthermore, governments have to enact policies and legislation that determine the relationships between those who collect data, and the users that generate such data. Such policies are also required to facilitate and spur technological innovation and progress within the continent.

Homegrown solutions are another key factor in the future of healthy digital societies on the African continent. Almost all participants acknowledged the backseat role that Africa and its people have played in the creation and deployment of various digital technologies. African people need to transition from being mere consumers of technologies originating from both the global West and East, to being at the forefront to developing technological solutions. Since most digital technologies used on the continent are not developed on it, it is no wonder that African people have little say in how these technologies gather and utilize user data. Moreover, homegrown digital technologies have a higher chance of addressing the myriad of African problems as compared to technologies developed in contexts far removed from the target regions and populations.

African societies and cultures place emphasis on the community, rather than the individual. Similarly, any healthy digital society in Africa requires collective and communal collaboration. Individualism is considered a relatively recent concept largely originating from Western countries. Despite recognizing the power in individual consent and ownership of technologies and data, participants appreciated the beneficence that communal efforts have to offer.

In this regard, solutions such as data cooperatives were suggested as a communal way of regulating and managing individual and collective data. The need for such communal approaches is supported by the encompassing nature of digital data, where an individual’s data is connected to other people’s data as well. This situation is exemplified using an individual’s phonebook, which contains data on numerous other people, from their names and photos to phone numbers, email addresses, physical addresses and much more. Therefore, if a digital application were to take data from an individual’s phonebook, would it not have accessed other people’s data as well?

The communal aspect of healthy digital societies extends to multidisciplinary collaboration required in the development and deployment of digital technologies. Participants appreciated the fact that the data governance program had incorporated professionals from different sectors. This multisectoral model incorporated a diverse set of inputs that broadened the perspectives of the members and enabled them to discern the intricate and complex nature of digital technologies and societies. Likewise, healthy digital societies require input from all facets of society, from people working in different fields, to people of different demographics, whether gender, age, ethnicity, or region of residence.

Challenges we encountered along the journey and lessons learnt

The data governance program was not spared the vagaries of nature manifested as the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on in-person gatherings has been one of the primary containment measures implemented by government across the world to mitigate the spread of infection. Such measures necessitated the use of a virtual set-up for the meetings, in contrast to the bulk of foresight work which has been carried out in physical settings, where participants had a chance to mingle and freely share ideas and collaborate. Use of virtual platforms such as Zoom and Miro posed challenges relating to internet access. Some participants experienced issues with accessing steady internet connections that would facilitate use of data-heavy apps such as Zoom. Additionally, participants experienced issues related to extended period of screen time (Zoom fatigue). This challenge informs the design of similar programs in future which should have shorter session segments with more breaks in-between.

Achieving effective communication and collaboration was another challenge experienced during the process. The primary issue here involved lack of familiarity with the various concepts and tools used. Collaboration within the cohorts and sub-groups largely used Miro, the online whiteboard and visual collaboration platform. Only a few of the participants within the cohorts were familiar with this online tool, resulting in minimal and hampered collaboration with the rest of the teams. This issue was less prevalent during the later meetings due to increased conversancy with the tool.  The challenge of tools extended beyond online platforms such as Miro to the foresight concepts and tools used as part of the process. There was a general sense that participants should have been briefed on the use of tools such as the Causal Layered Analysis, the Manoa Method amongst others. Participants felt that they had been thrown into the deep end without adequate preparation. Future work of this kind should familiarize participants with the various tools and techniques that they will encounter in the process, so as to result in better outputs and outcomes.

Personal reflections from the Kenya, Nigeria and Pan-African groups

The final reflections of the participants in the process provided insight into what needs to happen next, both with regards to the future of healthy digital societies in Africa, and the implementation of similar programs in future. All participants stressed the need to continue the conversation beyond what had been achieved within the program. The program itself was quite short, and participants observed that despite the number of issues raised and covered, there was still a huge gap in translating the results and outcomes to actual progress within their communities and countries. The artefacts, scenarios and visions that had been created needed to be actualized, and transformed from the intangible assets that they were to tangible elements. The only way to accomplish this is by continuing the conversation, both amongst the program participants, and within their greater communities.

Additionally, there was the sense among participants to involve more people from an early age. The bulk of the participants were youth, between the ages of 18 and 35, an age group traditionally excluded from conversations regarding the future of the African continent. Therefore, they had heightened awareness concerning the importance of including youth within such conversations, noting that with a median age of 19.7 years, Africa is largely a young continent. Therefore, there is need to involve more younger participants in discussions around data governance and healthy digital societies. Such involvement should involve students at the elementary and high school levels so as to familiarize students with concepts relevant to data governance. Furthermore, young people within these generations are avid users of digital technologies from social media to smartphones, video games and interactive media content. Therefore, they ought to learn more about such digital technologies, and be familiar with the terms and concepts involved in the creation and use of such technologies.

To facilitate the growth and development of homegrown technologies, Africans need greater access to venture capital and financial tools that enable them to developed their ideas into startups, and to move such fledgling startups into thriving companies. Even though such financial assistance from foreign regions is welcome, and can be effective in achieving the aforementioned purposes, there needs to be more local people offering such financial assistance. Such efforts may require collaboration between the local, national and regional governments, and the business community. For example, countries such as Kenya and Nigeria, from where most of the program participants hail, are home to companies such as Safaricom, Airtel Africa, and Dangote Cement, ranked among the top 25 African companies in terms of market capitalization.

Considering the contribution of this project to conversation on decolonization

The data governance project further facilitated conversations regarding the colonial history of Africa, and the ongoing role of neocolonialism in the current age. Any conversation around data governance ultimately leads back to the digital technologies that collect data from the end users. Participants noted that a bulk of the digital technologies used on the continent have been developed in foreign regions, meaning that they might not have been made developed with an African userbase in mind. African people were thus limited to simply using technology that they did not create, and which might not work in their best interests. However, these companies still reap billions of dollars from use of data that they retrieve from African users of their various digital technologies. In this manner, people on the African continent are limited to being mere pawns in the chess game that involves the development and deployment of digital technologies, and the gains realized.

The relationship of most African people to the technology companies that own the applications they use is reminiscent of the colonial, and current neocolonial age when Africans are not considered as vital stakeholders in matters affecting and shaping their lives. Colonialism is joined at the hip with economic models such as capitalism, communism, and all other such models adopted from foreign regions during the colonial and post-colonial era in Africa. One can hardly have a conversation about technological development and deployment without considering the economies that birth and support them; Facebook and Apple are as capitalist as Alibaba and Tencent are communist. Most people will note the capitalist manner in which the latter two technology companies operate, but they will similarly acknowledge the tremendous hold that communist principles dictated by the CCP have on their operations.

Participants suggested that one way of unshackling the continent from the disproportionate relationship with foreign powers is through development of homegrown technological solutions. The continent is home to millions of youths skilled in the sciences and technology, and therefore, has the human resources required to facilitate such progress. The participants further noted the colossal role that African governments have to play in fostering such an environment of innovation and technological evolution. Even though the colonial phase of most African countries ended over half a century ago, it is due to the incompetence and self-serving interests of most African political leaders that the continent is currently embroiled in the neocolonialist phase that has hindered African development unhindered by interfering foreign interests. Therefore, replacing the current crop of political leaders with those who have a brighter vision for their countries and the continent as a whole is a significant step towards untethering the continent from neocolonialist relationships that impede healthy progress of African societies.

Conversation is another step towards improving the welfare of individual Africans and the continent as a whole. Conversation fundamentally serves the purpose of enlightening the populace on issues that affect them individually and communally. Most participants had their view on data governance expanded during the process, hence increasing their awareness about the subject and its wider societal implications. Therefore, involving more people within the community in this conversation means that more people will not only be aware of the issue, but will be informed enough to agitate for required changes and steps needed to safeguard digital data. The participants saw value in involving as many people in their communities and countries into conversations regarding their welfare to empower them with vital information, and to reduce the occurrence of lobotomized citizenry.