In the 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte said, “War is 90 per cent information.”
At the time, very little data was generated, and little was known about its future role in refining information for better decisions.
In today’s world, terabytes of data are produced per minute. However, in Africa, we rarely translate it to information that can help us make better decisions.
Many outside Africa see big data as a solution to tackling poverty on the continent but as Bruce Mellado, professor of physics at the University of the Witwatersrand, says in his recent article The big data challenge and how Africa can benefit, Africa lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to embracing data-driven innovations.
This is tragic. Advanced countries are piling up so much data on the continent that the thought of Africa’s recolonisation using the same data is not far-fetched.
If you think I am out of my mind to imagine another colonial hegemony in Africa. consider the following story.
I was watching Profit Point, a CNN programme on Africa, one evening and a clip on Victory Farms, a Lake Victoria-based fish production and marketing company, was shown.
One statistic attributed to the Government of Kenya startled me. The fish deficit in Kenya stood at 800,000 metric tonnes.
I woke up the following day trying to validate the number. It tuned out that nobody within government had any idea where the number came from.
Both the National Bureau of Statistics and the Fisheries Department had only production figures, which they quickly admitted might not have been accurate.
Later, I discovered that the data came from research organisations specialising in demand data. Total production of fish in Kenya stood at about 180,000 metric tonnes.
This is being boosted by Victory Farms’ close to 200 tonnes a month and Chinese imports of about 16,000 tonnes.
While total production hovers below 200,000 tonnes, the total addressable fish market is in excess of 1 to 1.2 million metric tonnes.
Victory Farms have done a commendable job in introducing industrial production of fish and transferring knowledge and technology to locals.
Unlike the local random fishing, Victory Farms have a standardised production methodology that makes it easier to price the output.
China, on the other end, is working round the clock to develop the market and be able to fill the deficit.
FISHERIES POLICI MAKERS
The fisheries policymakers, however, are not using the data to recognise opportunity to fill the deficit, create jobs and wealth and make the country competitive.
The beef industry has similar problems. A study conducted by Agritrade in 2014 says Kenya has a beef deficit of more than 4,500 metric tonnes.
A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report says our consumption in 2000 was 287,000 and that will rise to 511,000 metric tonnes by 2030.
But as of 2012, consumption had shot up to 411,000.
I trust these numbers because many butcheries in Nairobi have no cold storage. Their daily supplies are always depleted by evening.
But nothing is being done to address the insatiable demand for protein.
Without recognising such data, we become vulnerable to exploitation by those who have it. Those with the data will also undoubtedly exploit opportunities as currently happening in the fisheries sector.
Yet many young people waste away in poverty and unemployment. When foreigners export to Kenya, very little employment is created, compared with when we invest locally and develop capacity.
Further, in order for Kenya to keep pace with the rising appetite for chicken and pork, the USDA report says that the country must increase its production by close to 400 and 300 percent respectively by 2030.
In the meantime, we import thousands of tonnes in chicken and pork to satisfy demand.
Strangely, some farmers fail to access the market due to a chaotic supply chain that favours only those with information.
Without embracing emerging transformative digital technologies that will define the fourth industrial revolution, Africa will still be vulnerable to domination by those who have the data.
We must develop capacity especially around artificial intelligence (analysing data beyond historical information) and begin to predictively use the available data to make cognitive decisions.
Imagine this: Through social media, Russia has managed to have the US and Italian presidents to be their evangelists, with a huge following in their respective nations.
What will happen to resource-rich African countries and their vulnerable citizens, with policymakers who have failed to build capacity to counter such moves?
If supply is to meet demand, we must develop efficient supply chains and build commodity exchanges and regularly conduct surveys to determine demand.
This is an area that is neglected by national statistics offices.
The focus on production without supply channels has little help in an imperfect market (when perfect information is not known to all market actors) where only a few benefit from information, a case in point being the recent maize scandal at the National Cereals and Produce Board, where a few crooks had prior knowledge of maize requirements to the detriment of real farmers.
In essence, as Napoleon said, War is 90 per cent information. Indeed it is partly through control of information that the West won the war against Russia as the West was able to convince the majority of people that Russia was as bad or worse than most developing countries.
Well the just completed World Cup surprised many, who saw modern and beautiful cities in Russia.
While Russia has found ways of changing its narrative, Africa innocently waits to be told what to do by whichever superpower controls the data.
With satellites, machine learning and deep learning, too much of Africa is in the hands of non-Africans and the only way to salvage the continent is through massive capacity development around data collection, storage, manipulation and predictive analytics.
In the absence of data, planning is useless and vulnerable to manipulation of the kind that we are seeing in fertiliser, sugar and maize importation.
Everyone thinks they know the numbers and in the end we find ourselves in a crisis when the market is flooded with poor products.
Data is an integral part of economic development that we can only ignore at our own peril.
The worst perhaps will be domination by other nations if we fail to build local capacities and embrace data-driven decisions.
Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, said “Big Data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.”
Let us stop fooling ourselves that someone is doing it for us and desist from claiming that we are doing it.
Let’s become active users of data and demand that decisions are based on data. That way we begin to be owners of data for our good.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.