What do we really know about Africa?

A PATH field researcher in Zambia uses this device to record key information about malaria transmission

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about innovation, and how it’s linked to development. Of course, this isn’t that unusual here at the Gates Foundation — supporting innovation is our main business. We believe that it can improve lives around the world and that it’s the most efficient way to bring about development. Indeed, the theme of this week’s Grand Challenges global conference in London is innovation. Bill Gates and experts in development and global health from all around the world have gathered to discuss how innovation can help us meet the Sustainable Development Goals, treat infectious diseases, and tackle many more challenges.

But the element of innovation that’s been most on my mind lately is data. While it may not seem like these two things are really linked, data and innovation are two sides of the same coin. Having good, accurate and robust data is absolutely necessary if you want to create a new product that not only works, but also fills a need.

Unfortunately, finding good data in Africa is very difficult. There are a number of factors that contribute to this problem, but often it simply comes down to the fact that many countries and communities just aren’t set up to collect and analyse information on their constituents in a systematic way. For instance, the World Bank has found that between 2000 and 2009, 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa conducted fewer than two surveys substantial enough to measure poverty.

Source: World Bank “Poverty in a Rising Africa: Africa Poverty Report”, 2016

This leads to a fundamental conundrum for development: if you don’t know what the problems are or from where they stem, it’s nearly impossible to address them. Fortunately, with the advent of technology, a number of innovators are flipping the script and letting innovation drive data, rather than the other way around. Innovative approaches to data collection don’t have to be flashy new gizmos. What sets the innovators apart from the rest is that they look at problems in new ways and find solutions by combining the available tools in unexpected ways.

For instance, Punit Shah saw two problems: data on financial access in Kenya was lacking, and so was people’s access to smartphones and phone credit. He found a way to solve both problems and make data collection into a game in the process by giving people locked smartphones and rewarding them for collecting data on financial services by unlocking one feature at a time. Once the phone is all the way unlocked, the data collector becomes the owner of the phone, and is rewarded for further submissions of data with airtime.

But smartphones can also help professional researchers. Simply giving a smartphone to a team collecting data can make a world of difference. At PATH, a global non-profit that innovates in the health sector, researchers on the team fighting malaria in Zambia log where malaria outbreaks are occurring, often in very remote areas. With the use of smartphones, they can quickly transmit that information to district- and national-level managers so they can coordinate malaria surveillance and treatment plans, with the ultimate goal of eliminating the disease entirely.

Source: Africa Soil Information Service

Innovative approaches to collecting, presenting, and disseminating data aren’t exactly new. As early as 2009 the Gates Foundation invested in the first digital soil map of sub-Saharan Africa, which combined soil sampling and satellite data to help farmers learn more about their land. But we need many, many more data innovations like these ones. We have made some progress in the past few years, and the problems associated with the lack of reliable data in Africa have gained wide recognition, but there is still a long way to go.

The place where we most need innovative approaches to data is in the realm of women and girls. Even the little data that is available on Africa is not sufficient to measure women’s contributions and opportunities because surveys tend to focus on male-dominated activities. We need to get women and girls on the map if we’re going to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of achieving gender equality by 2030. That’s why the Gates Foundation is so eager to find new ways to figure out where women are flourishing and what they still need in order to reach their full potential.

Data and innovation are like the proverbial chicken and egg — one cannot exist without the other and each produces a new iteration of the former. In Africa right now, the fact of the matter is we have the innovation but not the data. It’s time to leverage that tool for its best purpose.