Many Ghanaian tech startups are inspired by all but one thing: data

Hello there. Take a pause. Set a timer for 60 seconds and simply do nothing — just gaze into the vast expanse of the universe.

This simple experiment may seem like child’s play but in that time span, an immense volume of data has already been generated. Within that minute, your heart beat 70 times and your lungs have inhaled and exhaled over 8 litres of air. Almost 47,000 photos have been posted on Instagram, over 103 million spam emails have been sent and 3.5 million Google searches have been conducted around the world.

Data surrounds us everywhere, however the general sentiment is that there isn’t enough well-structured and organized data in the Ghanaian tech ecosystem for stakeholders to make informed decisions with. This is disturbing because how then do we reconcile the gap between problems that startups — tech startups — are working tirelessly to solve with the actual problems on-ground? How do they know they are solving the most pervasive societal problems versus random, low-impact, low-relevance and isolated problems that apply to just a handful of people? Could this data gap be the reason why tech creators in Ghana create products that are solving already solved problems, unoriginal products and products they think will make people say “wow” but won’t be adopted by the target users? For this piece, I will explore one of the possible reasons for the creation of low impact, unoriginal products, which is the lack of, or disorganization of data and information in Ghana.

Let’s look at the current state of research and data collection in Ghana. Apart from creating a business hypothesis, designing market surveys and setting out to find whether or not your product fits the market, what sources of secondary data are available to individuals seeking to make informed decisions about using technology to solve problems we face in Ghana?

Private research and data gathering, usually conducted by universities, banks and other private firms are available for viewing and download, but as you might have guessed, sharing of this data is hinged on their discretion. Research and consultancy businesses such as Wood Mackenzie also have a wealth of data available but that data is not exactly free. You have to be willing to pay subscription fees for it.

National agencies and ministries publish periodic reports and papers that are quite helpful in understanding how the Ghanaian economy is structured. For example, the National Communications Authority (NCA) publishes telecommunications industry data about mobile phone penetration, market share by telcos and other telecom statistics that may be useful when designing a telecom or communications solution. The Ghana Statistical Service is also a repo for economic, social and  demographic statistics about Ghana.

Most of the data collected in Ghana is done with help from, or championed by global agencies like the World Health Organisation (WHO), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Bank and Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). With help from the Web Foundation, the National Information Technology Agency (NITA) started the Ghana Open Data Initiative which is a central repository of datasets from 25 government agencies including The Energy Commission, Ghana Statistical Service and the Ministry of Finance. The sad thing is, out of the 25 agencies listed on the Ghana Open Data Initiative website, 21 of them have EXACTLY 0 datasets published! And the other 4? Their datasets are largely outdated.

There is a lot of untapped potential and areas of improvement if we are to surmount this challenge. Existing tech start-ups can make public some data and stats they have. I am not implying that tech start-ups should spend hundreds of thousands of cedis on research that gives them a competitive advantage, just to give it all away in the name of “the greater good”, no. But I believe letting some level of data & information out there goes a long way in helping foster collaboration and synergy in Ghana’s tech ecosystem. They can even think of it as an act of corporate social responsibility (CSR); CSR doesn’t always have to be about constructing boreholes in villages. The most searched item on Google by a particular demographic is readily available on Google Trends. Same applies to the most popular items purchased on Amazon. If I want to find out the total number of transactions of visa in a year, it is a search away.  The list goes on and on. I’m sure many of us would love to find out similar statistics about tech companies in Ghana.

If, for instance, expressPay, a popular mobile payments aggregator publishes information about monthly active users per region and distribution of mobile money users on their app per district, a startup could then use that data as a starting point to explore why they have low numbers in such areas, which might not necessarily be based on the model expressPay is using. Maybe for that region they don’t like using expressPay because it involves the internet. A solution that circumvents that problem can be created to get them to use it. The data from expressPay would have helped in determining which region to begin the primary research in the first place.

On the Government front, data collection and research should not always be foreign-donor led. The central Government must increase funds available for public institutions to conduct research. Currently, Ghana spends less than 1% of GDP on research & development (R&D). Compare this with Japan, Sweden and South Korea who averagely invest over 3% of their GDP on R&D. With an increase in funding and a restructuring of data teams in Government agencies, we should see more than 15 datasets on the Ghana Open Data Initiative.

University students in Ghana often spend their last year working on thesis and dissertations. Is it possible to allocate some funds to those projects so they see the light of day? Can the research and findings of these students also be made publicly available so we take turns in trying to transform them into reality? The various universities own these research works and they can choose to do as they please with them.  What’s the point in making students pump in time, effort and money on research work that will spend eternity sitting on a bookshelf? They can come up with a commercialisation mechanism that favours both them and the students so things can be taken a notch higher. Schools need to be more open on the benefits of research and can sell these ideas even before students begin their thesis.

Without this all-hands-on-board approach, we’re probably going to continue creating products nobody wants or needs. We’re going to continue copying and pasting concepts that have worked elsewhere and hope they work out. If they don’t, we’ll move on to another, and then the spraying and praying process continues. When Uber started operations in Ghana and their business model proved successful, a couple of copycats sprung up. Of course they are nowhere to be found now because of obvious reasons. We also have a lot of brands offering the exact same products and services – if we disregard logos, names and colours.

But as we wait and work towards turning things around, let’s find problems, understand them, ascertain their impact to society if they get solved, and begin gathering data that may help solve those problems.

The data may not be readily available in a relevant format but remember that “life and living it, is a data generating phenomenon.”

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