What counts? Need for more Data Transparency & Africa Tech Market Research

By Mbwana Alliy  |  October 25, 2011


A few months ago, I did some due diligence on a potential innovative healthcare venture in East Africa. As part of this I sourced some data from a no. of sources including the IMF, world bank etc. However, getting more granular data like current prices of medicines and what firms were manufacturing and distributing was really hard. Turning to Government for this data at the highest levels took a ton of time as most of them were too busy, the lower level Government employees were not much help. I also didn’t want to fork out $1,000 for a report written by US consulting firm who may not paint an accurate picture on the data in Africa. In short it was just too hard to get recent and relevant micro data. Even some of the macro data from sources such as the IMF was outdated. When it comes to technology and today’s fast changing world, more data quicker is better and often unleashes innovation when the organization that has access to it opens it up.

Internetstats.com stats masks a very murky picture of the state of the internet in Africa. This got me thinking about a cycle that happens when more granular data is not available- for one it makes decision making on investments really hard which in turn perpetuates use of outdated data that masks Africa’s true potential. Lack of more real time market research data is actually a big problem. Blogs and magazines such as this, VC4Africa, CIO Africa and other sources bring well deserved press to what is going on in Africa in areas of tech and business, but more rigorous analysis is needed.

For instance I am encouraged to see that VC4Africa does quite a bit of surveys on things like “most popular langauges for African developers” and various perceptions on VCs in Africa.
Every so often a fantastic infographic comes out that also helps a lot from tech firms and other institutions- for instance, InMobi’s Research that has a section on Africa’s mobile ad impression stats is tech data gold.

For Governments this can be tricky and part of a cycle that limits data being liberated- sometimes power is a result of what knowledge you keep or at-least power is often directly related to being a gatekeeper of information. How many of you in Africa have had to bribe someone to get the data you needed?? I rest my case… Not saying all data should be free- but useful data that brings confidence. Sometimes the data ia available but sometimes limited in the formatting- take for example Tanzania’s registered pharmaceutical products could be redone in a better way.

That is changing though- the ultimate sign of Kenyan Government’s seriousness on this is in recently creating the first OpenData initiative launched by a Governmentin Africa- more African countries should follow suit and if not, others should take the lead and make it part of their mission to help improve the industry and unleash innovation.

It is also encouraging to see Communications Commission of Kenya releasing more data and it being picked up by more mainstream news outlets- that way I don’t have to rely on internetstats.com or inaccurate proxies such as facebook penetration from socialbakers to get accurate no.s to basic questions such as “what is the current internet usage in Africa?” And does that metric really matter? Einstein once said “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”. And a recent nextweb article proclaims how we are measuring the internet usage might be wrong and actually masks a bigger more important trend in connectivity in Africa and broader emerging markets as it relates to mobile usage.
Western measurement systems would say that there are very few bank accounts in Africa and hence a limited formal economy, yet M-PESA collected $500M in deposits in the last quarter and has more transactions than Western Union globally. Or take the notion that smartphone adoption in Africa is low- but who cares? People still use the killer app- internet browsing common to both feature and smartphones, you certainly don’t need a smartphone to do mobile banking (but you certainly do in the west with companies like Square). One can even use SMS for parts of a sophisticated pharmaceutical ERP supply chain system that in the west would probably be implemented via some Oracle or SAP solution that is dated and was not designed for Africa’s people and infrastructure. The location based services startup Nikohapa allows you to checkin without a GPS smartphone using SMS. So how much does smartphone adoption really matter for emerging markets like Africa? What matters is the usage- I want to know more about this and the more we know, the more we can decide what to focus on and invest in.

Countries in Africa that provide this data and insights on trends more readily will attract more attention and credibility- both publicly and private- it translates to investment in the right areas both domestic and foreign. Many companies and individuals around the world rely on firms who focus on this and do it well. For example Gartner and Forrester. Some individuals even get well respected for their reporting- take Mary Meekers infamous “State of the internet” decks she has produced for years that has become required reading by any techie- if you quote her in your pitch deck around a trend you’ll probably bring more confidence. Africans need to demand more data and insightful tech analysis about what is going on anymore than foreign investors demand it to make investments.

What I call for is the idea of an “African Gartner” that focuses on the right metrics that matter and help change the language of how to think about the importance of tech in Africa.

I’d like to easily know for instance- why does Opera mini have over 70% market share in mobile Internet in Africa? How many SMS messages are sent in Africa and whether that is trending up or down per country and by how much. I don’t care so much about e-mail because its not the main indicator of connectedness in Africa right now (and that should be stressed in the analysis). In USA, SMS usage actually lagged the rest of world and is only now a mainstream way to send messages, meanwhile rest of the world is still hooked on SMS despite growing smartphone adoption. Companies such as Twilio may well come and invest in Africa faster if they knew better SMS usage data

I believe NGOs in Africa can play a big role in this because of their somewhat neutral stance as organizations that are neither Governement or Corporate with a specific agenda. Imagine if there was no Ushahidi… Success is probably part attributed to it being neutral source as an organization and the manner it which is collects data via crowd-sourcing.

Let me try an experiment- Imagine an African Tech ” Gartner Hype Cycle”, which attempts to measure adoption of different technologies along a well defined framework, where would you place mobile money on the chart- where would you place e-commerce? I can tell you that its all backwards compared to rest of the world? Are there any technologies that should be here. Does this model even apply to Africa as far as how technology is adopted?

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