(Editor's note: African Youth Journals is an online interactive forum for African youth to share ideas on current issues affecting and shaping the African continent as well as to crowd-source the true image of Africa. In this post, student Brian Waweru of Kenya writes about data collection, economics, and innovation on the continent.)
Over the winter break last year, I had a conversation with one of my sponsors about my holiday. In one of the emails we exchanged, he asked me to watch a TED talk by David McCandless about "Data Visualization." In the talk, the speaker highlighted a phrase that data journalists often repeat, which was that “data is the new oil… a kind of ubiquitous resource that we can shape to provide new innovations and new insights… [It] can [also] be mined very easily.”
Now, I paused and thought to myself: If data is the new oil, in a literal sense it would imply that there would be a newly found way of classifying countries or continents by comparing amount of resources. Since data is ever changing, the statement could also have alluded to the fact that data has not only the potential to catalyze new innovations and insights, but can create a dynamic environment of these innovations in keeping with today’s times.
One problem that Africa faces today is that there are very few data collection mechanisms that can help its people to innovate. International bodies have helped to capture a wide variety of macroeconomic data and statistics. For instance, in 2011 the UN released the “Assessing Progress in Africa toward the Millennium Development Goals-MDG Report 2011.” In this report, the data and statistical analysis—such as the percentage change in population living below the threshold (US $1.25 a day), which had decreased by more than 10 percent for the countries that were listed or the Employment-to-Population ratios that had roughly stayed the same throughout the years between 1991 and 2008—gave insights into the current status of the economy.
As far as policy-making goes, these reports help to structure the economy’s backbone by indicating the performance of the economy with reference to the policies that existed at the time. But as McCandless’s statement had indicated, the question that I ask myself is this: in what ways has such macroeconomic data influenced the innovations and insights that help to tackle everyday problems on the ground?
In effect, the vastness and diversity of data on our continent may not all be represented in those publications. While macroeconomic statistics have enabled us to analyze growth and graph our economic performance against the world standard, micro-economic statistics have the opportunity to provide insights into growth opportunities that characterize certain industries on our continent.
I was born and raised in Kenya and vividly remember the election of President Mwai Kibaki in the 2002 general election. My geography class in primary school had taught me that our former President Moi had been president for a very long time—a fact that caused people to describe that moment in the country’s history as the founding of a new nation. As the country’s new leaders presented themselves to Kenya at Uhuru Park Ground in Nairobi, they released doves their hands symbolizing the prosperity, peace and purity that the coming years would bring to the nation.
But for Mr. Mbaabu Muthamia, the doves had already earned him the prosperity that his bird rearing business sought after. Mr. Muthamia had supplied the doves that were used at the ceremony in 2002. I learnt this after watching a “Movers & Shakers” video by Citizen TV Kenya in which Mr Muthamia described his entrepreneurial journey. Mr. Muthamia used to sell chicken at 2Kshs (US$0.02) and eggs at 0.05Kshs (beyond conversion) while he was in primary school and he used this money to pay for his schooling. He continued rearing birds and found that different species such as the peacock sold for much more and were very profitable. When he began employment, he was offered a salary of 5000Kshs (US$59) and decided to quit his job after a month. Courtesy of his childhood entrepreneurial experience, he was able to contrast his employment opportunities with the data from the revenues from his childhood business. As Citizen TV reported, Mr Muthamia then went back to his “childhood occupation” of rearing birds. He now owns two farms located in Kenya’s premier area of Karen. His business has flourished and catered to a wide market including U.S. President Barack Obama, who ate one of Mr Muthamia’s chickens for dinner during his visit to Kenya. In running the business, he has reported the lack of trained veterinary doctors as a bottleneck to growth and capacity. If Mr Muthamia’s and other local entrepreneurs had their experiences captured statistically, Africa would have this new found resource that Africans could mine for new innovations and insights. The challenges of African entrepreneurs would also become quantifiable and would present to us new opportunities for business that could stretch our creativity.
Later on in his TED talk, McCandless re-branded the phrase to read as “data is the new soil… a fertile medium which can reveal patterns [… etc]” With the right information, Africans are capable of creating enterprises with local business models that are tailored to the continent’s business environment. Another “Movers and Shakers” example that one of my uncles asked me to watch was of Simon and Sarah, who founded Bonfire Adventures. Through social networking sites, Simon and Sarah used to document and share their pictures and stories from their travels in Kenya. They quickly realized that their friends and other followers were very interested in keeping up to date with their travels. Within a few months’ time, they quit their job and began a tours and travel business. Since its inception, Bonfire Adventures has expanded from tours and travels into anniversaries, car hires and other auxiliary services. They have customers from Europe, the U.S., and around the world, but also have Kenyan customers with whom they promote internal tourism. Again, this represented a simple example of individuals interpreting data that they have met in their everyday lives to find new insights and create new innovations within existing industries. In the realm of microeconomics, industrial organization, urban economics and financial economics can provide data that can be used to inform industry opportunities and catalyze the growth of businesses and the economy as a whole. Our data can therefore serve as a fertile medium for the seeds of creativity that we Africans seek to grow.
As stated by Field Ruwe in her blog post “You Lazy (Intellectual) African Scum!”, Africans need to keep pushing the boundaries of innovation. With the right data, we have the ability to nurture our ideas into fruition and provide ourselves with business opportunities for the prosperity of our continent.