Africa may trail the US and Europe in terms of technology, but the gap is bridging fast. The continent has taken great strides in the technological and policy prerequisites necessary for big data impact.

Surya Kannoth

About 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is created every 24 hours worldwide, suggest IBM estimates. Furthermore, 90 percent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years. Structured and unstructured data from social media sites, digital pictures and videos, internet chatter, device-derived data, cell phone GPS signals, purchase transactional records, and many more - data continues to grow exponentially. As big data becomes ever more ubiquitous, organisations worldwide are seeking ways to capitalise on the plethora of information in today’s digital world.

Africa may trail the US and Europe in terms of technology, but the gap is bridging fast. The continent has taken great strides in the technological and policy prerequisites necessary for big data impact. The explosion in the growth of the ICT industry, the rise of the use of mobile technology for financial and development transactions have been well documented. In Uganda for instance, mobile money financial transactions are changing the way business is done, helping the rural poor leverage microfinance and carry out profitable self-sustaining small businesses without any need for big banks.

The growth of smartphone adoption across Africa, which has improved data generation in the continent in recent years, is expected lead to more widespread big data use. Cell phone metadata and geospatial images are two types of big data currently being applied to development that likely hold the most promise for Africa.

Cell phones are an ideal data source, thanks to their high adoption rate in African populations. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), there are at least 50 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people in 45 of Africa’s 54 countries, and 22 African countries have exceeded the global average of 107 per 100 people (people tend to have multiple subscriptions). Trends suggest that this number will continue to grow rapidly, followed by mobile broadband subscriptions.

Source: International Telecommunications Union & International Futures

When the Ebola epidemic spread through West Africa, a Kenyan start-up created a reporting SMS-based system called Echo Mobile that allowed communities in Sierra Leone to alert the government on new infections.

Echo Mobile would send the texts sent by citizens and health workers to the Central Government Co-ordination Unit that analysed the data through a system developed by IBM Africa research lab.

The data helped the government map the spread of Ebola and quickly respond to new infections while at the same time managing the epidemic in the affected communities. Echo Mobile has demonstrated how the continent can leverage on simple data to respond to real situations and create precise, effective solutions in good time.

Similarly, Kenya Power, for instance, deployed an automated system that would not only consolidate customer data collection from 10 different sources, but also mine and analyse customer data.

The analytics solution gives Kenya Power ability to perform complex queries on data to give better insights on the varying needs of customers across different regions.

As with just about every area of industrial operations, Big Data is starting to make inroads into logistics and supply chain management – large steps have certainly been taken over the past few years – but there is still a long way to go. Adopting innovative methods of data collection, management and analysis that make use of modern technologies. It will also demand investing in the capacity of national statistics offices.

While the potential of big data in Africa undoubtedly opens up opportunities, the need for accurate information gathering – from the broad national level in the form of population census (new data lacking in many African countries) to ensuring sustainable technology or mobile-enabled data-collection models at the business level – is still a key link in the chain that ultimately can produce big data sets.

For those who have been paying attention to the Big Data conversations revolving around supply chains, one thing would have become clear - smart supply chain professionals are hooked to the idea of Big Data as a game changer. They understand that Big Data holds infinite possibilities but also poses significant challenges. Data protection and privacy, important elements of Big Data are still underdeveloped in most of Africa. Most countries still do not have data protection and privacy laws in place and hence there is a danger that Big Data may be exploited. Telecommunications companies remain biggest holders of Big Data in Africa.

Thus, Big Data adoption can create a first-mover advantage, and more importantly leads to long term innovations and benefits when specifically applied to supply chains.

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