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Ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair's foray into Africa stirs continent

 Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. [File, Standard]

Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, has been busy in retirement.

Mr Blair has been working with the Kenyan government and 16 other African countries in what has raised eyebrows about what the former Labour Party politician is up to.

Through his Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, Mr Blair was invited by the Kenyan government to help in delivering on some of its priorities, including digitising most of its services.

His man on the ground is Rishon Chimbonza, the institute’s managing director for Africa.

Phylis Wakiaga, who was the chief executive of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers where she had worked for nine years, recently joined the institute as a senior private sector development advisor. 

A Zimbabwean with an impeccable grasp of Kenya’s social, political and economic landscapes, Mr Chimbonza has lived in Nairobi for the last seven years.

In an interview with Financial Standard, Mr Chimbonza, who will be based in Nairobi, talks passionately about data and how they are helping the Kenyan government ride the wave of this new oil.

The think tank seeks to unlock the power of technology in the Agriculture Ministry, where they are helping the government to deliver on its promise of setting up a data hub in which it intends to bring together different data sources on the agriculture sector from across the country.

This should then culminate into a single body of truth that can be used for decision-making, not only by the government but also by donors and private sector players who want to innovate.   

All this is being done in the Agriculture Transformation Office, which is responsible for performance, delivery and monitoring evaluation.

The data collected can be on the types of crops grown in different regions.

“Because what would have happened without this type of set-up is all these different stakeholders would go and commission their own data. Then there are different data sets that you are now working with. And you end up getting a disjointed picture,” says Mr Chimbonza.

A single body of truth, on a bigger scale, sounds like the controversial Huduma Namba, technically known as the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS).

Through the Huduma Namba, the government initiated the registration of persons in the country using a harmonised approach to address duplication of efforts and to cut costs in registration processes.

Expectedly, the process has already experienced resistance, with critics arguing that it opens the window for the government to abuse citizens’ constitutional rights such as the right to privacy.

“The net benefit of what it (Huduma Namba) intends to achieve is good, but it is down to the frameworks that give people comfort on how their data is used,” says Mr Chimbonza.

He noted that for a national digital architecture to work, there is a need for some sort of foundational ID with all manner of data from the citizens.

“And there, you can get much higher compliance across the population. You won’t get 100 per cent, but you would get much higher compliance,” he says, giving the example of Tanzania, where there is 90 per cent compliance, largely due to the existence of a digital ID.

But the political structures in Tanzania are quite different from Kenya’s, which boasts one of the most progressive constitutions.

Agricultural database

It has, however, been blamed for stalling economic progress by some critics.  “I think, to a large degree, technology and data literacy among the population is a good thing. And I also think it is a good thing for citizens to ask questions about what is going to happen to their data and how the government is going to use it. I think that is absolutely a good thing.”

Indeed, one of the Institute’s specific inputs as far as creating an agricultural database goes, is to create a data governance framework.

“So all of this data that is coming in. What is the framework that governs it to make sure that this data is not abused and it is also used in the right way by all the different stakeholders, and how do they manage it?”

Fears of misuse of data are real, not just in Kenya, but in many other countries, he says.

Kenya has since come up with a slew of data protection laws and a data protection office to bring sanity into the growing digital communities, especially in a city like Nairobi, which has been described as Africa’s Silicon Savannah.  

Mr Chimbonza says having a singular citizen ID, for example, would help, not just Kenya, but most African countries.

“So for us, the discussion we are putting forward is that, ‘listen, as governments, how can we work with you to bring all these platforms so that you can make decisions better?’”  

The idea of technology infrastructure, he explains, is critical if African governments were to close the wealth gap. “And I don’t think we have lived at a time in history when so much wealth has been created so quickly. And the wealth gap between us and the rest of the world is already big enough.”

He reckons that the idea of technology is not only about fintech (financial technology); it is not about regulating the sector; it is not about telecom companies that are successful like Safaricom.

“But it is also about data. And that data if it is in one place, everybody who wants to thrive and benefit from technology economy is there and has the right framework around it then we can really start to unlock the power of technology.”

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