Management Magazine

Change at scale and pace

Big data’s potential to drive development in Kenya


The private sector is increasingly being recognised as a force for good. This sector of the economy positively impacts on the development outcomes of a country because it is the engine of innovation, investment and growth. Traditionally, this space was occupied by social entrepreneurs, innovators and philanthropists who dared to think big to improve the state of the world. There is a marked shift in thinking among the traditional capitalist players as they reconsider the role of business beyond financial returns. Unique partnerships are developing across industries and types of organisations, tapping into technology, innovation and entrepreneurship to tackle some of society’s most difficult problems.

Development challenges

Kenya grapples with several challenges that represent opportunities for the private sector. The dynamics of poverty are changing. The 2018 Global Hunger Index by Concern Worldwide indicates that 46 per cent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, while 36.5 per cent are food insecure and 35 per cent of children under five are stunted (chronically malnourished). We are also still struggling with access to water and sanitation, and access to healthcare.

The size of the population that needs feeding is constantly growing. The population increased significantly (growing from 11 million in 1970 to 39.5 million in 2011) and at the current rate of growth, it will be double in the next 20 years, reaching 81 million in 2039 according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics data and projections. 

Multiple rates of youth unemployment in Kenya are cited in public discourse: a 2017 study backed by the British government put unemployment at a “staggering” 22 per cent of those aged 15 to 24 in 2016. Another 2016 survey done by two Aga Khan University scholars found that unemployment rate among those over 18 years but under 35 years to be 55 per cent. A September 2018 statistical update by the United Nations Development Programme placed Kenya’s youth unemployment rate for those aged 15 to 24 at 26.2 per cent in 2017. Unemployment and underemployment are likely to be further aggravated by developments in the future world of work. The Future of Jobs and Skills Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) indicates that 52 per cent of Kenyan jobs are subject to automation. 

When it comes to energy and financial access, our indicators are relatively good. Approximately 75 per cent of Kenyans have access to electricity from grid and off-grid sources, with the government setting a target of 2022 as the year by which Kenya will attain universal access to electricity. The 2016 FinAccess survey, shows that only 17 per cent of Kenyan adults do not have a bank account, or use another formal product like mobile money, or even use an informal mechanism like a savings collective – i.e. they are fully excluded from financial services.

Remedy lies in tech

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Faced with these challenges, Kenyan entrepreneurs are increasingly turning to emerging technologies – the Internet of Things, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Robotics and 3D printing – to create innovative solutions and viable business models. Digital technology has facilitated the development of unique platforms to provide timely information, healthcare, education and jobs for hard-to-reach small-scale suppliers. 

‘Data is the new crude oil’ 

The allegory goes that data is now a vital underpinning for almost all industries and, used well, it can lead to significant profit. According to a report by Microsoft, titled Digital transformation in South Africa and Kenya: How cloud policy can accelerate innovation and drive economic growth, cloud markets have gained significant traction across sectors, contributing to the country’s national development. 

Some of the more popular big data use cases include developing a 360-degree view of the customer, fraud preventions, security intelligence, data warehouse offloads, price optimisation, improving operational efficiency, enabling the performance of recommendation engines, conducting social media analysis and scheduling preventive maintenance and support. 

Many new uses

Many new applications for big data-based solutions to industry specific challenges are continuously emerging. Healthcare organisations are looking for patterns in treatment that lead to the best outcomes for patients. Farmers are determining the best time to plant or harvest, and professional sports teams are deciding who should be on the roster and to help improve player performance.  Financial traders are determining when to buy or sell, and many more. As businesses experiment with big data technology, they often find dozens of new uses for it that they hadn’t originally considered. Big data presents the private sector with an opportunity to address development challenges and achieve the dual goal of making profit while contributing to the country’s development.

Elizabeth Maloba is a Global growth and change facilitator. Email:

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