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The Next Wave: Chasing transparency reports

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A Scotland-based Nigerian priest and his TikTok
NOVEMBER 15, 2020
This newsletter is a weekly in-depth analysis of tech and innovation in Africa that will serve as a post-pandemic guide. Subscribe here to get it directly in your inbox every Sunday at 3 pm WAT.

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Hello,

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While the US was a few days away from presidential elections and its attendant drama, the MTN Group was eating good; it had just sold its 18.9% stake in Jumia and cleared $142.31 million. Phew!

Now, while today’s story has MTN in the mix, it is about your digital rights and has nothing to do with the telco and its dealings with Jumia.

Yesterday, MTN published its first-ever transparency report (pdf), showing how it manages customers’ data in 16 African countries, and Iran.

On one hand, this is a laudable step in the right direction, on the other hand; WHY IS AFRICA’S BIGGEST TELCO RELEASING ITS FIRST TRANSPARENCY REPORT MORE THAN 20 YEARS AFTER INCEPTION?

Short answer: Africa’s regulatory oversight is not efficient enough to care for your digital rights.

The longer answer and its implication is more nuanced, and probably broader than can fit in here, but let’s take a stab at it.

First, two things, please;

Now,
let’s start with a story you’re probably familiar with.

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WHAT’S HAPPENING

The fall guy
In November 2015, the Nigerian government slammed the MTN Group with a fine of $5.2 billion; arguably the largest in a historical context.

Immediately, the government’s official telco regulator; the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), swung into action to collect, and well, let’s say they encountered many problems.

Firstly, by the end of Q4 that year, the telco posted $1.3 billion in profit; a 37% reduction from 2014 and less than the fine. There was nothing to collect, but the government persisted and what followed was akin to a clusterfuck with plenty colourful characters; a resigned CEO, a former US attorney, two presidents, and an endless stream of
lawyers.

How did we get here?

In 2010, the Nigerian government gave an ultimatum to telcos to properly register subscribers on its network or disconnect them. Five years later, MTN still had 5.2 million unregistered and connected subscribers.

The fine seemed like lawful, good judgement, and
the outlook of a regulator that took digital rights seriously, except the government already had an axe to grind with the telco.

One month before the hefty fine, one of Nigeria’s prominent politicians, Olu Falae had been kidnapped, and MTN could not trace the kidnappers’ SIM cards. Unconfirmed reports said this incidence, and not any concern for the digital rights and privacy of its citizens, was why the government fined MTN.

[READ: Nigeria kidnap case helped to trigger fine on South Africa’s MTN]

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Setting examples

While it was in the legal clear, the fact that that fine was reportedly more vindictive than just punitive begs the question, again;

How did we get here, really?

Digital rights are human rights, and while Africans are becoming more aware of their rights to access and privacy on the internet and modern communication mediums, the future of digital rights and privacy on the continent is bleak.

Internet shutdowns, social media bills, privacy invasion, data leaks, social media taxes, etc; the conversation
on the continent is still very regressive.

African governments do not have structures to incentivize and regularise data privacy and protection, and thereby strengthen digital rights. If anything, the governments are usually the worst culprits.

In Nigeria, 5 months before the MTN fine, hackers got hacked and a state government was apparently spying on its citizens.

[READ: Some evidence suggests Bayelsa State Government hacks its citizens]

Beyond this barefaced complicity in compromising its citizens, on a fundamental level, harmonisation structures are absent in data collection and storage processes.

This also means Nigeria has never had a proper and unified identification system.

[READ: Getting a National ID card takes up to 4 years in Nigeria: going digital will not solve the problem]

The SIM card registration system that MTN got into hot water for is still in shambles, and perfunctory at best. This is plainly a case of a system failure from the NCC.

MTN is still a bad boy, and this is not absolving it of guilt. In fact, this transparency report in discussion was a reactive move.

A study from last year showed the telco ranking poorly in upholding the digital rights of its customers. According to Quartz;

“..the accountability index noted it [MTN] divulges very little in how it handles personal data and lacks strong governance mechanisms over human rights issues.”

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Between the fact that Africa’s largest telco is publishing its first transparency report in 2020, and that this is one of the very few that exist on the continent, I’m not sure which is more alarming.

Transparency reports are important for accountability. After Google set the trend in 2009 with the first one to ever be published, it has
continued ever since and a lot of other companies have followed suit.

With 747 million mobile connections on the continent, Africa is unarguably mobile-first putting a lot of power and responsibility on telcos. It is only fair that regulators step up and demand more accountability from them and, frankly, every other organisation handling data, maybe including the government itself. Maybe.

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FROM THE CABAL

Jessica Anuna’s transatlantic shopping cart
This week’s edition of My Life In Tech features how a startup Klasha wants to bring the global fashion industry to Africa.

It is an intriguing story of how Jessica founded the company to allow African consumers to shop and ship fashion items directly from global retailers and fast fashion brands.

A Scotland-based Nigerian priest and his TikTok. Technology now helps propagate religion, but the latter’s Luddite stance in the past has made this very ironic. In Scotland a Catholic priest is teaching thousands of his TikTok followers what his clothing means.

His is a story of two extremes that swings between finding proper filming lighting and being bullied in the comments
section.

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THE CRYSTAL BALL

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For COVID-19 Africa’s weak health infrastructure highlighted the need for better capacity building urgently and while better infrastructure won’t materialize overnight, efforts to ensure the continent is better prepared against future health crises begins now. From telemedicine consultations to accessing test results online, healthcare providers can deliver faster care to those in critical need through secure online health portals and apps. Precision medicine is within our reach, and with better infrastructure and continued partnerships among stakeholders, there will be better health outcomes for Africans.”

Dr Jumi Popoola, Senior Director, Molecular Genetics and Operations,
54 Gene.


Every week, we will ask our readers, stakeholders, and operators in Africa’s tech ecosystem what they think the new normal will look like, and will share their thoughts here. You can share yours with victor@bigcabal.com with ‘The Crystal Ball’ in the subject line.

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TC Insights

Data needs attention
A college graduate in Nigeria subscribes to a job alert platform. A shop owner in Kenya applies for a loan from a digital lending company. A teenager in Tunisia unlocks his smartphone using facial recognition. A middle-aged South African places a purchase order for health supplements.

One thing that’s common to these people, apart from the fact that they’re all Africans, is that they’re submitting their data in these processes. What may not be common to them, however, is the implication of submitting their
data.

Research shows that internet users in Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa grew more concerned about their online privacy in 2019, although it says nothing about the 50 other countries on the continent.

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Data is
generated every second at exponential rates – the World Economic Forum (WEF)
estimates that by 2025, the amount of data generated per day will be equivalent to 212,765,957 DVDs – this makes it a powerful tool, and there are increasing cases of it being exploited for fraudulent purposes or personal gains. It
becomes even more powerful when people are not aware that there are laws against the unlawful use of personal data that regulate the collection, usage, transfer, and disclosure of said data, or that there is even such a thing as “personal data”

Research from UNCTAD says that 50% of African countries
have data protection legislation in place; 17% have drafted legislation; 24% have no legislation while 9% have no data.

While it is a good sign that data protection exists in 27 out of 54 African countries, enforcement tells a different story. It’s also important that the people for whom these laws are drafted not only know that they exist, but also understand their full implication. People can no longer afford to limit the definition of data to physically submitted information while neglecting the significance of their digital footprints.

If you are a founder in Africa, please fill our investor list here and let us know who gave you your first check. Get TechCabal’s reports and send us your custom research requests here.

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Best wishes for a great week

Stay safe and please observe all guidelines provided by health experts.

You can subscribe to our TC Daily Newsletter; the most comprehensive roundup of technology news on the continent, and have it delivered to your inbox every weekday at 7 am WAT.

Follow TechCabal on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn to stay updated on tech and innovation in Africa.

Victor Ekwealor, Managing Editor, TechCabal

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