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This Is Not a Drill: What J.R. Ewing Never Told You About Digital

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I often talk about the digital future and what it means for business, but today I want to reflect on the past for a bit, at least to start.

I want to go back in time to the late 1800s, where oil was discovered in rural Texas by a contractor who was drilling a water well. Like the California gold rush before it, the discovery led to a boom unlike any before it. The discovery of Texas oil was key in driving the growth of the US as a global economic powerhouse. Agriculture was mechanised, manufacturing and transportation boomed and urbanisation took place on a grand scale.

I’m talking about oil, not just because I’ve been watching old reruns of Dallas, but to emphasise the truly transformative impact oil has had over the years. And anyone who’s paid a visit to Angola in the last decade or two can attest, that even now, oil can transform societies like few other resources.

In Africa, we have access to a resource that’s not only more disruptive than oil, but a potentially unlimited resource. You don’t need prohibitively expensive drilling equipment to mine it either, and it’s rapidly becoming available across all of Africa.

I’m talking, of course, about data.

Striking oil

We’ve been hearing about big data for years, and how the internet is poised to change Africa forever. So, what makes this time so different?

The signs are all there. Last year’s GSMA study, The Mobile Economy: Africa 2016, found that more than half a billion people in Africa were subscribed to mobile broadband networks, something that has unlocked more than $150-billion in value to the economy. Just last year saw Africa and the Middle East’s CAGR of mobile data peak at a massive 96%, according to Cisco.

And fixed broadband penetration is finally starting to become viable for Africa’s urban population. In just five years, the fibre network on the continent has literally doubled. Around half of Africa’s live 4G networks have been launched in just the last two years.

This is it. The tipping point. Instead of the oil fields, we have the famous Silicon Savannah, as bursting with business opportunities, bold new innovations and social development as the Serengeti is with wildlife. Pay a visit to any of Africa’s tech hubs in Rwanda, Kenya or SA, and it becomes clear that the long-promised potential of the internet is finally paying off.

Existing pipelines are opening up, and that means a healthy flow of data is surging through Africa, bringing it to life like never before. But what are the consequences of finally becoming a connected society going to be? What does free flow of access to data mean for service delivery?

Do it for the greater good

At the heart of using all of this data effectively is the question of whether the internet is a basic human right or a competitive advantage? Transforming African society into a digital one has been a long road, and who exactly are we doing it for?

Here’s where the oil comparison breaks down a little. While oil can certainly build societies, there’s no guarantee it won’t be monopolised by a small few and fail to meaningfully enrich the many. But we’re not seeing this with data.

In Tanzania, one organisation was able to gather data that destroyed conventional wisdom about how many blind people there were in the country, which will allow the government to deliver health services to the right people. Rwanda’s Zipline makes critical medical deliveries to remote points across the country by drone, while Kenya’s M-KOPA brings the M-Pesa model to solar power.

These aren’t exceptions to the rule either. These are stories coming out daily, and what’s notable is that these aren’t just being driven by charities or NGOs, but by for-profit businesses. Barely two weeks ago, at the Mobile World Congress, the GSMA announced an initiative with the UN that will see telecoms companies use anonymous data from their usage statistics to monitor crises, track and curb epidemics, and aid in disaster relief efforts and more.

Information for goodSM. That’s the key maintaining competitive advantage in a data-driven world – showing value for your customers, time and again. It’s not a zero-sum game anymore. We don’t have to choose between profitability and social good. In fact, it’s fast becoming a business imperative to enable both.

No such thing as data barons

Unlike oil, data is democratic. A consumer’s data is their own little oil well, and in order to tap into that resource, they need to make good with them and differentiate themselves from the other wannabe data miners.

It’s an uncomfortable proposition for businesses and governments – not being in control of their resources anymore – but one that’s set to drive the biggest and most positive changes that Africa has ever seen. Because the more you build up the consumer, through digital and financial inclusion, the more access to data you’ll have to build your own business, whether by engaging better with your customers or identifying new business opportunities or making smarter decisions.

Data doesn’t only have to enrich one side of the pipeline. By changing our business and delivery models, it can be used to empower millions, uplift societies, and create economic wealth. But all of these require new ways of thinking, about the relationships between private and government, corporate and customer, operations and marketing.

In order to differentiate your business from the pack, you need to do clever things with data, like using it to fuel new services and make existing ones better. It’s time to ask yourself, how are you enabling data for good in your organisation? What data and development models do you have in place to identify and solve your customers’ issues?

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