The Global Partnership and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) hosted a roundtable on September 16, 2021 on the use of private data for public good, exploring how the private sector can contribute to and invest in data sharing, developing data services/products, and data infrastructure to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This interactive, closed-door event focused on the following questions:
- What role can the African private sector play in supporting progress toward the SDGs from a data perspective?
- What are some of the incentives and enablers within the private sector for sharing data for public good and to advance the SDGs?
Participants from more than 20 private sector companies, NGOs, and research centers from nine African countries exchanged experiences and shared a vision of what involvement of the private sector in the achievement of SDGs through data products and services could look like. Before opening the floor for roundtable discussions among experts, two keynote speakers, Irembo's Director of Partnerships Leila Rwagasana and Manobi Africa CEO Dr. Daniel Annerose, shared perspectives of their respective companies in this domain. This event resulted in five key takeaways, which the Global Partnership and AIMS will use to shape follow-up conversations through the Data Values Project in the coming months:
- Future conversations must confront the range of challenges facing the African data economy. These include infrastructure dependency (as most data centers are based in the U.S. and Europe), lack of data (including lack of historical data and insufficient data to develop AI systems), limited analytical capabilities within the workforce at-large, and national regulatory weaknesses. This diagnosis must be the starting point for conversations on how data can help achieve the SDGs.
- Companies in both the public and private sectors need to ramp up co-investments and operate hand-in-hand in pursuit of the SDGs. The public sector alone is incapable of achieving the SDGs due to insufficient data and limited resources in the face of emerging challenges like climate change. To achieve the SDGs, the private sector has to chip in. Private sector investments must be increased by making key sectors (i.e. agriculture, utilities, transports) more attractive for private players like Manobi Africa that can support the development and digitalization of pivotal services (e.g. water management). This calls for identifying the right incentives for private sector engagement, both from the financial and data perspectives.
- Private sector data solutions in Africa hold vast potential for facilitating citizen-government interactions. Many private sector initiatives support progress toward the SDGs through improving public services, but business leaders are often not conscious of the links between their activities and the goals. The experience of Irembo in Rwanda shows how a private sector company can support people’s access to public services and directly improve lives. To deliver digital services to citizens, the private sector must collaborate with the public sector (i.e. by tapping into national electronic identity databases for users’ identification) and share data and insights with public authorities on an ongoing basis. Private sector actors also need to build trust among constituents by ensuring the privacy and security of data and embedding this way of working in data sharing with the public sector.
- There is a cultural and economic push for the African private sector to become more data driven and to recognize its role as a producer and user of data. There is increasing awareness that integrating different datasets and data sources can tremendously benefit businesses in their operations. Figuring out data sharing frameworks that work for public and private data users is a first step to exploiting opportunities to simultaneously benefit citizens and governments. However, data is still seen by businesses as a competitive asset which they are often unwilling to share. From this perspective, the example coming from the financial sector (which is now moving towards payment interoperability across the continent) is very useful: Financial players understand that it is more efficient to compete on price and value of services while sharing the underpinning infrastructure rather than competing on the latter. Data could represent a shared infrastructure for African businesses to compete on services and added value only.
- The existence of relevant policy and legislative frameworks is a pivotal enabler for data sharing. The private sector is aware of the importance of applying privacy/data protection and data security regulations and also wary of the many (sometimes sector-specific) rules applicable to them. Regulatory frameworks that are not fit for purpose or that restrict data sharing can significantly hamper private sector collaboration with the public sector on the progress toward the SDGs. There is clearly a role for regulators to play in bringing private sector players together around the theme of the SDGs and data sharing in, for instance, sectors such as finance or telecommunications. In such sectors, often there is already an obligation for private players to share data with public authorities, which can help produce better public policies and services. This could be a starting point for further discussions.
In the coming months, the Data Values Project’s collaborators aim to convene additional conversations focusing on the private sector experience of specific countries or sectors. Ultimately, the Global Partnership and AIMS aspire to increase awareness around the key role of the private sector in Africa and data activities that support achievement of the SDGs.