“I have been looking for data to back up a claim that Africa has a data problem for the past two hours,” Nigerian journalist Ope Adetayo tweeted earlier this year. Adetayo was working on a piece about how sim card blocking was spreading across Africa, but his reporting on the dearth of data was stalled by the very lack he was writing on. The tweet resonated widely; it received 1,144 retweets and 3,736 likes. His experience is a common issue at the forefront of Africa’s specific misinformation challenges.
The dissemination of information, the production of investigative reports, and participation in significant societal discussions all rely on data, which is typically collected from governmental organizations and private research outfits. But in Nigeria, and across Africa, getting the necessary data for reports is rife with challenges. Africa’s ongoing data gap touches nearly every industry. It has stalled innovation and development efforts that call for demonstrable outcomes and data-driven decision-making, and have also hindered government responses to the pandemic. For example, a lack of accurate reporting has led to inaccurate forecasts that might avert or cushion the effects of aggressive floods.
It is also a source of serious concern for African journalists and storytellers who need data and stats to back up their reports. And in this case, it feeds an infinity loop: without proper data, many African journalists cannot get their stories published. Journalistic stories serve as direct sources for researchers and analysts, who struggle to compile reports without the proper reporting to back it up. “[Data] is a way to quantify my work,” Adetayo said. “More often than not, I have to quote data in my work because it is a way to put into perspective the issues you are talking about. If you add numbers to it, it makes your storytelling more solid.”
ROADBLOCKS TO DATA
Olatunji Olaigbe, a freelance journalist reporting on tech and environmental stories, was working on a story about how the pandemic and the persistent school lecturers’ strike in 2020 contributed to the rise of “yahoo boys,” a term used to refer to individuals engaged in online fraud. He approached the Economic and Financial Crime Commission for data to contextualize his piece, but he was constantly told to check back each time he visited their office.
“I remember going to the government office of EFCC and what I wanted was just data of how many arrests were made in the past two or four years and they literally could not give that,” he said. “They kept on asking me to come back every day and then every time I went back they tell you they can’t.”
Africa’s ongoing data gap touches nearly every industry. And in an era of fake news and misinformation, the importance of data becomes paramount.
One day, Olaigbe got a call from an unidentified individual saying that he was going to keep returning but wouldn’t get his hands on the data he wanted. Olaigbe gave up trying. Nigeria is among the most dangerous and challenging for journalists in West Africa, and beyond the logistical reporting challenges, such anonymous warnings can at times have a trace of threat.
Adetayo had a similar experience trying to get data from the Nigerian Meteorological Agency on the amount of rainfall that happened in Lagos. When Adetayo arrived at their office, they instructed him to write to Abuja to get the director general’s approval before granting his request for data. After extensive negotiations, Adetayo ultimately paid N47,300 (109.40 USD) for data that should have been on the website.
“I wanted data for the amount of rainfall that happened in Lagos. This data was supposed to be on their website. Because this agency is tax-payer funded, there was no need to buy the data. I got it, though I had to pay for it which was exorbitant,” said Adetayo.
Experts cite underfunding and a lack of operational independence of government agencies as contributing factors to the data gap in Africa. Nigeria passed a Freedom of Information Act in 2011, but since then, implementation is still a problem. States are stalling implementation by taking advantage of conflicting judicial rulings. Some say the law is applicable nationwide, while others claim that because it is a federal law, it does not apply to the states. Meanwhile, only two states have passed their own Freedom of Informations acts.
“A lot of these government statistical agencies remain underfunded and more importantly, have not been empowered with the operational independence to be able to say from an authoritative data perspective,” said Ikemesit Effiong, Head of Research at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based geopolitical risk advisory firm. “There is still an often unstated political mandate to make the data look good.”
In an era of fake news and misinformation, the importance of data becomes paramount. When Nigeria’s government body charged with this job, the National Bureau of Statistics, falls short owing to irregularities in their data reports and untimely publication of important indicators, journalists turn to international organizations, such as the World Bank, World Health Organization, and International Monetary Fund. But using international data has its limits.“Some internationally produced data are not that accurate because they are not produced in a certain local context that would show local realities. Data is as important as the source it is coming from,” said Adetayo.
ADDRESSING THE DATA GAP
In the absence of trustworthy government data, efforts to increase data transparency and solve the data gap in Nigeria have come from international organizations as well as certain local data firms, such as Dataphyte, a media and data analytics company that gathers information on a range of topics and makes it accessible to journalists, decision-makers, and researchers. Stears is also a Nigerian data firm that provides access to high intelligence data in Africa while SBM Intelligence is a Lagos-based geopolitical intelligence firm that clarifies situations in Nigeria using big data.
Olaigbe contends that the development of a “working information ecosystem” will be the sole means of bridging the data gap. For him, it is more of a behavioral issue where there will be some sort of accountability from the government agency if there is a high demand for this data.
“We need to create a better information ecosystem, a datable system where more people are willing to give us the little data they have. So if they are willing to give out that little data then they will be willing to collect more. So let’s start with the system working,” said Olaigbe. “At least if the ecosystem is working, then the ecosystem can grow.”
Muhammed Bello is a creative and freelance journalist from Nigeria.