Why cybersecurity is the immune system of Africa’s trade

By Louis Otieno, Director at 4Afrika Initiatives
It’s 04:45 on a Monday morning in Rwanda. Isaro, a young shop owner, is up early. She is getting ready to open up her small clothing store for the day. Isaro founded the store a year ago and is gradually building a loyal customer base amongst the local ladies of her community, but unfortunately, these ladies are the only market Isaro is able to reach.

Because Isaro has no online presence, she can only sell her clothes within the confines of her community. She has thought about setting up an online store so that she can expand her market, but she is afraid. Last year, she heard about how the Skye Bank of Nigeria’s IT system was hacked, losing over US$40 million. She also read about how enterprises across Africa and the Middle East have spent over US$8 billion on dealing with security issues caused by malware. As a startup founder, Isaro knows she could never afford the costs of dealing with a cyber-security issue and feels insecure about transacting online, and so she sticks to selling offline within her community.

Cybercrime a disease for healthy trade

Isaro’s story is not an uncommon one and it is impacting the growth of Africa’s trade, particularly trade within African borders, which at only 12%, is far behind the 61% of trade within the European Union, according to the African Development Bank.

The International Data Corporation has predicted that intra-Africa trade can improve, but only if ICT initiatives such as payment systems, financial inclusion projects and cross-border payment platforms are adopted. For example, Skrill, which is an e-commerce portal that in partnership with mobile network operators (MNOs) enables Africans to use their mobile wallets to buy from global internet brands, send remittances and safely engage in online trade of products and services.

Hosted on a trusted cloud platform, the Skrill portal is completely safe and facilitates online transactions for those who don’t have access to a bank account. These kinds of cloud platforms have the latest security measures built in by the companies that host them, because they can pool the resources together of all their pay-as-you-go users. Now, African consumers and businesses just need to buy in to these platforms and feel secure transacting online, which can only happen if three primary actions are taken.

Building trust and safety

First, for us to build trust in these technologies, more formal and written cybersecurity and privacy policies need to be put in place. Governments also need to update baseline national privacy legislation, so that startups and innovators like Isaro feel safe and protected while transacting online. The processes for protecting intellectual property like obtaining trademarks need to be streamlined and made transparent for innovators. Governments also need to work with their regional counterparts to create a globally interoperable framework, where traders can safely and easily share data and value-added goods and services across borders.

Second, the public needs to be educated about these different policies and legislations. They need to know where they can go if they fall victim to cybercrime. Companies can and should work in partnership with government to establish security principles, provide online safety education and commission studies to identify factors that increase online risks. Together, they can run national awareness and education campaigns, starting with the youth, so that all citizens are knowledgeable on their rights and responsibilities with regard to online privacy and security.

Globally, two such partnerships have proved particularly successful. In 2009, leading web companies signed a European agreement to improve the safety of minors using social networking sites. The Safer Social Networking Principles for the EU were developed in co-operation with stakeholders from government, civil society and industry to provide good practice recommendations for operating in the social networking space. In Australia, an agreement was signed in March 2014 to create an ISP code of practice. Backed by the Communications Alliance, the code’s aim is to promote “faster, safer, fairer and more trusted internet for Australia” by, among other things, instilling “a cyber-security culture within Australian ISPs and their customers”.

Public-private partnerships can and should pave the way in promoting safe online activity. But it doesn’t stop here. Thirdly, and lastly, citizens need to incorporate these safe practices, buying authentic, non-pirated software and reporting suspicious activity.

Healthy trade = economic growth

The ability for Africans to safely utilise online platforms and pay-as-you-go cloud services will help the continent shift from a labour-based economy to a key player in the global supply chain of value-added goods and services, ultimately encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, and boosting Africa’s knowledge economy and growth.

ICT should offer an exciting playground for trade and not inspire trepidation. It is our goal to ensure all Africans feel empowered and inspired to safely engage in the digital era.

For more information on cybersecurity, follow these links:
Microsoft cybersecurity portal
Microsoft cyber trust blog
Microsoft Digital Detectives
Microsoft government
Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit newsroom

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