Made in Africa: The role of localisation in African tech governance

African nations need to become net producers of knowledge and innovation but this will only be possible if African governments centre local ideas, data, and approaches in their policymaking, says Aparupa Chakravarti, the director of strategic investment consultants Botho Emerging Markets Group.

Opinion by

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Africa’s technology sector is exciting, multifaceted, and brimming with contradictions. Almost half a billion Africans are online, with another 300m projected to join their ranks by 2025. That same year, the internet economy will likely contribute over 5% of the continent’s GDP. Riding on this expanding connectivity, African innovators are making serious waves – from fintech to transportation to e-commerce.

Conversely, while countries like Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda are on track to achieving universal access by 2030, 600m people still lack access to electricity. Meanwhile, less than 30% of Africans have access to a broadband connection and Africa accounts for only 1% of global data centre capacity.

Though numerous path-breaking developments punctuate the continent’s digital landscape, they are occurring within still-significant structural and infrastructural gaps. Furthermore, the digital opportunity is concentrated in four countries: Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Kenya. To move the needle for the continent as a whole, African nations need to become net producers – rather than adopters – of knowledge and innovation. This will only be possible if African governments centre local ideas, data, and approaches in their policy making and priorities.

Regulating innovation vs. regulating innovatively

Sub-Saharan African governments enacted 60 measures to boost technological innovation in the wake of the pandemic; several focused on expanding access to digital tools. But even as African governments are addressing fundamental policy areas, such as digital infrastructure, inclusion, and skills, they are grappling with emerging issues, like cybersecurity, data protection, and fintech regulation.

As of 2021, there were “comprehensive” personal data protection laws in just 28 African countries and only 11 countries had substantive laws on cybercrime. Meanwhile, digital issues, notably digital privacy, intellectual property (IP) protection, and cybersecurity, are nominally addressed in trade agreements. The Center for Strategic and International Studies analysed six African trade agreements, including the AFCTA, to discover that only three incorporated “vague or general provisions” on IP protection, while none alluded to cybersecurity or data protection.

Such policy and legislative lacunae present an opportunity that is simultaneously daunting – due to the magnitude of the task of filling them – and exhilarating – because there is room for experimentation. This is so because, although concepts such as data protection and digital rights may hold universal applicability, they are not universal truths governed by a single, immutable set of values and approaches. The notion of IP is a case in point.

In Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, author Xiaowei Wang turns “shanzhai” – a disparaging Cantonese term for knock-off goods – on its head by describing it as “open-source on hyperspeed, an unapologetic confrontation with Western ideas of intellectual property.” She argues for the right to not just be able to access and use technology, but “to collaboratively alter, change, and reclaim it”, thereby reducing people’s reliance on proprietary technology – especially in the context of technology imports from the West into developing nations.

In the same vein, what indigenous notions and practices can African policymakers draw on to define, contextualise and regulate innovation in a way that makes most sense for their own economies?

Knowledge is power

Central to this is knowledge. To unlock digital innovation at scale, African governments need to better generate, collect, and harness local data.

There are concerns that international big tech companies have been mining, monopolising and monetising data in Africa. They, thus, correspondingly limit the potential of African entities to produce their own technological advancements using these same databases. This relegates African countries to remaining net consumers and adopters of foreign technologies and innovations, or even suppliers of data points for global tech players. African countries can only move up digital global value chains (GVCs) by becoming their own centers of knowledge production and innovation.

However, Africa contributes just 2% of global research output, accounts for only 1.3% of research spending, and produces 0.1% of all patents. In 2020, patents registered by African residents amounted to 16,000, compared to over 2 million clocked in Asia. Many African countries allocate only 0.42% of their total GDP towards R&D, below the global average of 1.7%.

To reposition the continent on digital GVCs, African governments need to not only legislate data, but also collect, analyse and disseminate information in such a way that it can be leveraged by universities, researchers, and the private sector towards their R&D efforts. This would enable governments to foster ecosystems characterised not just by individual successes, but rather multiple nodes of digital innovation and technological advancement.

Success begets success

Ultimately, African policymakers need to tap into and co-create their own repositories of knowledge. In doing so, African governments can stay ahead – or, at least, abreast – of evolving needs and trends in regulating innovation, because innovation will be embedded in regulation from the outset.

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