Africa should forge path for secure data flow across borders, experts say

Nairobi, Kenya — Digital experts called on African countries Tuesday for laws to protect the data of individuals and businesses, saying that a single digital market in which data can safely flow across borders would help overcome barriers to commerce and trade on the continent.

African government information and communications technology representatives, international organizations, diplomats and experts are meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, this week to discuss how data can move freely from one country to another without risking people’s privacy and safety.

Kenyan Information, Communication and Digital Economy Minister Eliud Owalo said Africa needs to improve its laws to deal with emerging issues in the digital space.

“What will enable African countries to remain relevant in the digital marketplace will be our level of creativity and innovation, strategic agility and maneuverability in the digital space,” he said. “And that means we need to continuously, based on what is happening in our operational environment, look at our laws, policies and regulations.”

In its 2023 Londa report, the Paradigm Initiative — an organization that monitors digital rights, environment and inclusion in Africa — said internet shutdowns and disruptions, data protection, disinformation, cybersecurity, surveillance and a lack of freedom of expression and information affect the continent’s digital growth and sustenance.

Experts say that data plays an important role in every sector and that sharing it makes information more accessible, increases collaboration and facilitates knowledge exchange, leading to innovation and growth in business and relations among states.

Paul Russo, the head of Kenya Commercial Group, which operates in seven African countries, says the discussion about data sharing and security is important for businesses.

“This is not only a new area that we need to work together to bring to life, but I also think it’s important for our own businesses to be sustainable,” he said. “At the heart of every business, particularly for those of us in the private sector, is data — both integrity and confidentiality and protection of that data.”

Data misuse and abuse is a worldwide concern, and fears continue to spark debate on how best to safeguard, regulate, monitor and benefit from the available data.

European Union Deputy Head of Mission to Kenya Ondrej Simek said that data protection requires global effort and that gaps must be filled through law.

“Collaboration between data protection authorities around the world is needed to advance the regional and global harmonization of legal and regulatory frameworks,” Simek said.

“One area of specific importance is that of safe cross-border data flows,” he said. “A first step is ensuring the data protection laws are in place. The second one is obviously to operationalize them effectively. These are critical steps toward Africa’s single digital market and toward a global area for safe data exchange.”

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