Open Data as a Catalyst for Development Policy in Africa

Open Data as a Catalyst for Development Policy in Africa

Africa’s data deficit

Africa is a large and diverse continent with a population of over 1.3 billion people and a GDP of over $2.6 trillion. It is also a continent that faces many development challenges, one of which is high poverty rates. Some estimates suggest that as high as one third of Africans lived in extreme poverty in 2022. To address the development challenges, Africa needs effective and efficient policies that are based on sound evidence and data. For instance, poverty is a multidimensional construct which can only be understood with detailed high-quality data. 

However, data availability, quality, and access in Africa are often limited and problematic. This is obvious if we look at the World Bank’s Statistical Capacity Index, which measures the ability of countries to produce and disseminate high-quality data. In 2022, only 10 African countries scored up to 70 per cent on the index. Although the index is based on indicators of national statistical capacity, it also indirectly reflects the quality of data funding, infrastructure, human resources, coordination, standards, and dissemination mechanisms within a country.

As a data-driven researcher who has worked in several African countries, especially Nigeria, I have witnessed and personally experienced these challenges first-hand. I have seen how data that is relevant for policy research and analysis is often scarce, outdated, unreliable, or inaccessible across different contexts in Africa. In a 2020 study that I led in Nigeria, half of the 500 researchers that we interviewed indicated that they were dissatisfied with their access to primary data for research. Their dissatisfaction came from many sources, including poor data quality.

The explanatory power of good data

In my line of work, I have also seen how data can be a powerful tool for informing and improving policy decisions and outcomes, especially in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Good data can help improve policy outcomes by enabling accurate, timely and relevant evidence for policy design, implementation and evaluation. In addition, data can also foster accountability and transparency by enabling citizens, civil society and media to monitor and scrutinise policy performance and impact. Good data can also enhance innovation and competitiveness by supporting research and development. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, we can speed up the decline of helicopter science by collecting, curating and disseminating high-quality data on topical issues from developing countries.

That is why I have been making efforts to collect and democratise access to high-quality data for policy research in Africa, in collaboration with several colleagues and partners, including research funders. My point of departure is that so long as good policy making relies on solid evidence which, in turn, is driven by data quality and access, collecting and curating good quality data is a non-trivial task for evidence-informed decision making (EIDM) stakeholders. This task requires more collaboration and support among researchers, policymakers, practitioners, donors and others.

My contributions to open data

Since 2020, my colleagues and I have made some contributions in this regard. Every time we run a major research project, we strive to thoroughly clean up the dataset and make it openly accessible to the research community. Among other things, this will facilitate more context-relevant research that helps to clarify misconceptions about Africa and provide policy recommendations that match the continent’s development needs. I also hope that my own efforts that I highlight below will encourage more stakeholders to embrace open data practices.

  1. With funding from the Global Development Network (GDN), in the framework of the Doing Research programme, we created the dataset on the production, dissemination and uptake of social science research in Nigeria. The data was used in this report and this article which we summarise here. We used the data in this article too. I believe the data has potentials for much more.
  2. With funding from the Private Enterprise Development in Low-income Countries (PEDL) programme of the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), we created a pooled dataset on entrepreneurial characteristics of undergraduates in selected Nigerian universities. The dataset was used in this article which I summarise here, but has potentials for much more.
  3. With funding from PEDL, I merged, cleaned and standardised data from two rounds of Nigeria’s official national innovation surveys to produce a pooled cross-sectional micro-level innovation dataset in Nigeria. This dataset has become popular, having been used multiple times by several authors not affiliated with my home institute: here, here, here, and here.


How to harness the power of data in Africa

It is hard to argue against the importance of data as an asset for development in Africa. Data can help us understand and solve the complex and interrelated challenges that we face and enable us to achieve the SDGs and our vision of a prosperous, peaceful and integrated Africa. Data can also help us work against helicopter science, and promote the capacity, ownership and relevance of context-specific knowledge and evidence. However, there are some key aspects that need to be addressed through collective efforts.

  1. Data quality assurance: Poor quality data is almost useless. It is therefore important to ensuring that available data are accurate, consistent and valid. This requires applying rigorous methods and standards for data collection, validation, verification, and analysis. Several existing organisations can collaborate to create such standards. In the area of science, technology and innovation (STI), for example, the African Observatory of Science, Technology and Innovation (AOSTI) is a critical stakeholder.
  2. Data protection and ethics: Data must be collected and used responsibly and lawfully. In addition to simple best practices like obtaining informed consent before collecting human data and anonymising data before sharing, stakeholders need to comply with the relevant laws and regulations such as the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection. These will help to build trust between the data providers and users.
  3. Data curation, dissemination and uptake: It is highly important to adopt effective strategies and platforms for data dissemination and communication. In my experience, social media, publications (including reports and research articles) and events that bring relevant stakeholders together tend to work well. However, dashboards and dedicated data curation websites are particularly helpful in curating and disseminate clean data that researchers and policymakers can use. In this regard, Africa needs homegrown solutions of the size and scale of the Food Systems Dashboard and the African Education Research Database. Admittedly, creating such solutions require significant funding and capabilities, both of which are not necessarily in short supply in Africa. The major challenge lies in matching funding with capabilities and needs.

Author’s Bio and contact details.

Abiodun Egbetokun is a Senior Lecturer in Business Management at De Montfort University in Leicester, United Kingdom. He also maintains affiliation with Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa and the National Centre for Technology Management, Nigeria. Abiodun's rich multidisciplinary background includes degrees in Engineering, Technology Management, and Economics. He applies advanced micro-econometric methods to data from developing countries, designing and implementing household and firm-level surveys, including Nigeria's official science, technology, and innovation (STI) surveys and the longest-standing data collection effort on undergraduate entrepreneurship in Nigeria. His expertise spans nearly two decades, during which he has advised governments and international development partners on issues related to innovation, entrepreneurship, employment, poverty reduction, private sector development, public policy, and sustainable development. His work has been sought after by several multilateral development organizations, including UNIDO, GIZ, and the African Union Commission. Notably, he served as President (2019-2021) of the Nigerian Young Academy and as a Science Advice Policy Fellow (2019) of the US National Science Foundation. As an Author AID and Development Studies Association (DSA) mentor, Abiodun actively supports early career researchers in developing countries.


Affiliations: Leicester Castle Business School, Faculty of Business and Law, De Montfort University, Leicester and National Centre for Technology Management, Nigeria;


Acknowledgements: The author(s) is solely responsible for the content of this article, including all errors or omissions; acknowledgements do not imply endorsement of the content. The author is grateful to Siziwe Ngcwabe and the Africa Evidence Network team for their guidance in the preparation and finalization of this article as well as their editorial support. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in published blog posts, as well as any errors or omissions, are the sole responsibility of the author/s and do not represent the views of the Africa Evidence Network, its secretariat, advisory or reference groups, or its funders; nor does it imply endorsement by the afore-mentioned parties.