Surveillance capitalism: Where the real battle for Africa lies

Monday September 18 2023

Crowd of people being tracked with technology walking on a busy street. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

"Macron looks on as France’s Africa policy crumbles”.

“Gabon coup shows how France’s influence on its former territories is disintegrating.”

“Niger coup exposes Russia’s grand strategy for Africa.”

“Why many Nigeriens want Russia in and the West out.”

These are the kind of headlines that followed the recent military in Francophone West Africa’s Sahel.

Read: Macron: French meddling in Africa 'over'


In some of the countries like Burkina Faso and Mali, the military juntas turned, not even to the formal Russian state for help but to the sub-contracted Russian Wagner private paramilitary group to help in the fight against militias, in exchange for minerals.

Read: Russia's presence in Africa: Weapons, Wagner and energy

On the surface, French malign influence in West Africa has taken a big hit, and in the long term that will likely be for the better for those countries.

China’s economic influence in Africa, has also risen dramatically in the last 25 years – for good too.

But there are two problems here. The first, and most annoying, is that the infantilisation of Africans sounds like it’s back to what it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Africans are portrayed as childlike, with no agency, confused animals blinded by a car’s bright lights in the middle of the road, a play thing that has fallen out of the hands of the West into China’s and Russia’s laps. It is very deliberate, and grossly inaccurate.

Secondly, it misrepresents Africa, the state of the world, and the nature of imperialism today. Therefore, it is serving as the conjurer’s old trick of misdirection.

Internet monitoring

The more alert has argued that the geopolitical old-style influence of imperialism as portrayed in Africa today is meaningless; that real imperialism exists primarily as “surveillance capitalism” – described as the monetisation of data captured through monitoring people’s movements and behaviours online and in the physical world.

Not too long ago, a group of African editors were in China as guests of the Beijing government. In what today could be considered an unguarded moment of exuberance, they were taken to a government technology outfit that tracks the internet and social media all over the world.

Read: Google to overhaul ad tracking system on Android devices

There they were led to a massive hall, with hundreds of people behind computers, and what one of them described as “a screen the size of a tennis court”. It was a giant mood wall, and their hosts projected the state of social media sentiment in all African countries. It was colour coded, with green spots showing chill conversations, amber spots showing where conversations were heating up and red where there was a lot of anger online.

The Chinese described how they correlate those moods with real events on the ground – victories by national teams, protests, government crackdowns, natural catastrophes like floods, international conferences in the capital, and so forth.

They had built a long history with it, and were able to predict with over 75 per cent accuracy what was likely to happen in a country depending on how it looked on the mood wall. From a practical point of view, they wouldn’t seek a meeting with a government on the day the mood in the country was red.

These days traffic on commercial websites and online stores, satellite tracking of shipping, movement of heavy trucks and activity on phone apps offer a quicker and sometimes more reliable data on economies than the ministries of Finance or government statistic bureaus. By the time government or Central Bank data comes out six months later, it is largely useless for decision making in fast businesses.

The bulk of this information is owned by global technology companies. These kinds of information used to be harvested by commercial attaches and spies at embassies. The embassy, an infrastructure of the old state, is much less important these days as a result.

Meta (the charmed owners of WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and, lately, Threads), if it were inclined to snoop, would know the location of an African president or minister, what time he is WhatsApping his mistress, and so forth, better than the CIA officer at the US embassy.

Read: Meta to pay $90m in Facebook user tracking case

Digital world

The ability to create and exploit this information architecture is where global power and influence is today. It is not in contracts over cement, railways, and which captain or colonel has overthrown a hapless civilian president somewhere in the Sahel. We are no longer in an age where the size of your navy fleet, and ability to blockade a rival, is the primary source of power.

We have been living in this digital universe for nearly 15 years, and citizenship and control there is as important as in the physical world. The really powerful tech giants and tech-smart nations are the ones who exercise power over this and harvest it best for rewards.

Consider, for example, that the number of Africans doing post-graduate courses online – nearly all of them in western universities – is more than ten times those doing so in physical classrooms. Is the local ministry of Education still the power over education?

Bilateral funding to individual African governments by western governments and bodies the EU and the World Bank is important. It feeds the hungry, helps dig wells in villages and immunises children. But it doesn’t have any cutting edge effect.

The most interesting and defining things in Africa today are happening in innovation hubs and in start-ups, and new world-class knowledge is being developed in think tanks, nimble research organisations and consultancies. The money that moves things in there doesn’t come from the World Bank, the EU or African governments.

The biggest players are venture capitalists and new age philanthropies. The most influential of them are foundations spun off by giant tech companies. I have a good knowledge of this sector and have seen these organisations throw money that left me speechless.

Read: Facebook slips as investors flee Meta

More familiar is how a chunk of this power is also exercised by the institutions and companies that organise and shape our social and cultural experiences. Social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, X and TikTok dominate our political conversations and cultural production. Our primary experience of music is through YouTube, Spotify, Tidal or Shazam.

People like creatives and developers, working from home, easily spend 90 percent of their time in that universe. Their connection to their governments and its institutions on a given week , beyond the water and electricity they consume, is less than five per cent. Even for these, they pay their bills using mobile money and order their groceries the same way from a foreign supermarket like Carrefour.

The real war

Most existential though, is food. Today Africa is the most food-dependent region in the world (it used to be a net food exporter in the 1970s), with food representing more than 40 per cent of imports of some countries.

This has reshaped politics, and with the food crises driven by climate change, a colossal failure by African governments to beef up agriculture, and the rise of genetically modified seeds, we have given power in our countries to giant seed and global agrobusiness companies.

The brick-and-mortar world is important, but no longer king of the hill. The trophies won there aren’t worth their weight in silver. The explosion of AI will further disrupt the brick-and-mortar world.

In this tech epoch the power of the old imperialist foes of African patriots has not diminished. It could easily be double what it was two decades ago. We will not see that and respond to the challenge if we keep thinking that the backers of coups in climate change-ravaged Sahel nations – or who’s building the latest railway – is where real power in today’s world is. I suspect though, that surveillance capitalism is delighted that we are focussing there.

As one report noted, “Seed markets are highly concentrated, with Bayer, Corteva, BASF and ChemChina/Syngenta controlling more than 50 percent of the global commercial seed market. These same four companies also control more than 60 per cent of global agrochemical sales.”

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. X@cobbo3