In an earlier piece, I introduced the concept of “big data lite”, a form of massive data utilisation well below the threshold of traditional big data but which has proved difficult to incorporate into user-friendly formats for broader public consumption. I mentioned that better manipulation and presentation of such data, when applied to international development, can disrupt dominant narratives.
Indeed, a Ghana-based research organisation with which I am affiliated have over the last few years been applying this more limited notion of Big Data to one of the most established beliefs in international development economics – the belief that Africa is insanely wealthy in mineral resources.
This notion has been repeated so often that it has snaked its way through news items, major journal articles, speeches by bigwigs, and finally found itself entrenched in the political economy of international development. All sorts of prescriptions are made for Africa on the basis of this ideology.
Yet, there is a massive amount of geological and mineralogical data that collectively contradicts this truism. Though the operative phrase is: “massive amount of data”, this data is still in the gigabyte magnitude range, which means that it is in that tricky middle between a super-long dissertation and the true threshold of Big Data, unappealing in that sense to enthusiasts of either end of the spectrum. Consequently, the data is rarely mined for insight when it matters.
The verdict from said geological survey data is however stark: judged by the global average, Africa is actually mineral resource poor. It is relatively poor both on a per capita and per square mile basis.
Of a hundred major minerals widely traded and used in industry, Africa is a significant producer of only 10 of them.
With the exception of bauxite and petroleum, these 10 minerals are not even as widely used in industry as those other minerals that Africa does not produce in sufficient quantities, such as tin, copper, nickel, zinc, iron, coal, and lead.
Indeed, of the top 5 metallic minerals which constitute 62% of the total value of global metallic mineral production, Africa is only a significant producer of one of them: gold. Some vital minerals such as tin and nickel are nearly completely absent in Africa. When you take the total value of production and reserves of Africa’s main minerals and compare the result with the value of other minerals, the balance is hugely stacked against Africa. Fascinatingly, the total annual value of Africa’s mineral output (including petroleum) is less than that of North America, despite the latter having just about one-third of the former’s population.
One could make the point to downplay this blunt reality that maybe the bulk of Africa’s mineral resources are yet to be estimated. However, that point will only be valid if the search for Africa’s minerals has been less than intense than elsewhere. Here too the resolution is in the data.
The only objective measure for that view is the amount of investment that goes into exploration. The data clearly suggests that, to the contrary, Africa receives a share of total global exploration capital roughly and proportionately equivalent to its population and landmass – that is, more than 15%. The search for minerals in Africa, from colonial times to date, has clearly been just as intense.
So there you have it. “Big Data Lite” has just been employed to straighten a major misconception. It did take my colleagues a few years before they could be confident that the data does indeed indicate thus, but in the end the insight was incontrovertible (see some earlier references here: http://bit.ly/JI2YyN & http://bit.ly/JrXrPa). The lack of said insight in global public discussions of Africa’s mineral wealth clearly stems from the current format in which geological and mineralogical data is held and presented.
Imagine what other entrenched myths and misconceptions are just waiting to be upturned.
Well, you may soon be able to do more than imagine. At least one of the Global Agenda Councils of the World Economic Forum shall in the next several months be devoting its full attention to this subject.
Bright B. Simons is the President of MPedigree Network, Ghana and a member of the Global Agenda Council on Information & Communication Technologies and a 2012 Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.