Data is crucial to the 21–century world. It defines how different aspects of our economies are built, operate and manifest themselves over time. This depicts data to be in the same rank of importance as oil, to say the least.
In this case, investing in data is crucial for developing economies. Hence—over time—different organisations such as the World Bank (WB) and the World Economic Forum (WEF) have rallied for the utilization of data and promoting data democratization for effective development planning.
The value of data is vast and elongates further especially in emerging economies. According to a January 2021 publication by WEF, there are more things to explore when it comes to data and Africa has been painted as one of the interesting places on the planet with sufficient opportunities.
The publication explored the Digital Earth Africa (DE Africa) program results, which brought up the use and role of satellite imagery in tackling issues such as pandemics, famines and climate change.
According to the WEF, the vital program which was launched in February 2019 incorporates “the open data cube and amazon web services to make global satellite imagery more accessible and proves how data can bridge key social and economic inequalities in the twenty–first century”.
According to a WEF-commissioned analysis of available sources, DE Africa could unlock economic benefits worth up to US$2 billion for the African continent.
There are several problems that the program unearthed. The first one was the free data composed of Africa’s geographical elements and coastlines gathered for many years, which can be used to understand the mining industry.
What Digital Earth Africa found
The program laid several facts bare, where with one–fifth of the global gold production taking place in Africa, this pristine mineral escapes the region illegally, cutting a significant amount of revenue off from local economies.
“It also has enormous environmental impacts as illegal miners level forests and contaminates both water and soil, leading to an uptick in malaria and other diseases. Satellite data can help to identify these illegal mines by providing detailed Earth Observation images,” the WEF argued.
There have been several issues rising in South Africa—Africa’s largest producer of gold (160,000kg/year)—illegal gold mining activities are occurring led by criminal gangs (BBC, 2013).
Further, there is a vast array of untapped economic potential in the region. The program sees that the widespread data access could foster growth of the earth observation industry and other data sectors, creating new opportunities and helping the continent more actively participate in the global economy.
This scenario can be substantiated by other reports, such as How we Made it in Africa 2019 publication featuring various CEOs’ opinions on Africa’s business potential. The CEOs saw different markets that have not been tapped such as the electric motorbikes for Africa’s urban centres, the housing market in East Africa, garbage disposal and battery recycling—which is a spin-off from the small scale solar boom.
Hasnain Noorani, the CEO of Pride Group, a Kenyan company involved in the hospitality, transport, travel and energy industries, believes garbage disposal could be the next big thing in Africa.
“One of the opportunities, which, I believe, is untapped and has huge potential, is coming up with a cheaper solution of trying to see how garbage can be disposed of not only on a small-business level but perhaps also at the city level,” he added.
Hunger—another challenge facing the region—can be tackled by the availability of data to inform stakeholders towards decision-making, particularly weather forecasts, water availability and crop development trends.
According to a 2020 African Development Bank (AfDB) report the region has at least 65 per cent of the world’s uncultivated but arable land—this means there is much potential for data to be utilized to uprise Africa’s farming sector,
The value of food imported in Africa stood at $43 billion in 2019; this means the entire continent still imports agricultural products, while four countries account for a significant portion of its food (Nigeria, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia) according to Brookings, December 2020 publication.
Data has the solution
Data could provide an amicable solution to the problems analyzed. According to Digital Earth Africa, data can pave the way to inform African decision-makers on several key angles such as science, policy, agriculture and industry.
DE Africa has an operational platform, powered by Australian technology, which allows satellite images to be translated into information and accessed by decision-makers.
“DE Africa’s data infrastructure helps to make both current and historical satellite images relevant and usable by improving their availability, quality and frequency,” WEF argued.
Also, through the utilization of the Open Data Cube, an open-source technology allowing geospatial data access, management and analysis functions, raw data can be processed into decision-ready products. These include simple facts, numbers, or visualisations to inform policy and drive actions involving a broad range of stakeholders.
By expanding the Earth observation industry (EO)—which is one of the key issues for harnessing fourth industrial revolution technologies for the public good, nearly $500 million in annual revenues will be provided for the sector and bridging data infrastructure gaps over the next four years.
“Building on Geobuiz data, we estimate that such a platform could halve the “data infrastructure” gap between the African continent and other countries by 2024,” the WEF noted.
Also, the program anticipates that with this revenue growth could come further investment in the sector, including the creation of well-paid job opportunities for Africa’s youth—such as geospatial engineers, data scientists, technically trained personnel, investment in advanced technology, and fiscal revenues for local tax authorities.
Tackling unregulated gold mining is another angle that could emerge with a handsome payout. Combating the illegal gold mining, with combined efforts from environmental damage control and fiscal evasion, the continent can garner $900 million as savings.
The WEF argued that whilst health impacts are difficult to quantify, research conducted by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) allows us to estimate the fiscal and environmental costs of such practices for the region.
“For example, studies in 2016 found that uncollected taxes due to illegal mining are worth $550 million in Ghana and $2.2 billion in South Africa. To put things in perspective, this is over one–fifth of the revenues of telco group MTN from that same year. It has also been estimated that illegal gold mines are responsible for the loss of 1.13 per cent of primary forest in Ghana and that the Western Region of this country spent $250 million in 2016 alone to recover lands and water bodies destroyed by illegal gold mines,” the WEF noted.
In addition, boosting productivity in agriculture through water savings and insurance benefits could transform farm operations significantly, in terms of saving 176 billion cubic meters of water per year, equivalent to almost an $800 million reduction in water abstraction costs, according to WEF research.
“These efforts are worth an approximate $900 million per year as EO technology offers new insights to farmers and better access to data. The Digital Earth Africa platform allows for the detailed tracking of water, land, construction and weather changes across countries, and the information provided can help to tackle a wide range of issues, such as floods, droughts, land use and water availability. This may generate wider benefits, such as helping to mitigate the risk of malnutrition as population growth calls for more efficient use of resources,” WEF argued.
The Digital Earth Africa program shows the continent why data is crucial for sustainable development and its utilization could transform the region’s economies on a wide scale.