Cybercrime: African business leaders need to change their outlooks and approaches

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Top 50 tech champions

By Frédéric Maury, Nathalie Kienga
Posted on Thursday, 5 May 2022 10:53

The deployment of digital technologies in Africa has grown dramatically over the past two decades. The internet penetration rate, which was less than 1% of the population in the 2000s according to the World Bank, has now reached 43.2% (Internet World Stats, 2021), including 25% of users connected every day.

This is part 10 of an 11-part series.

An increase that continues to accelerate since, between October 2018 and April 2019, more than nine million individuals obtained internet access for the first time.

This evolution has also been accompanied by the development of online platforms (a phenomenon known as the “platformisation of the economy”), with the increasing importance of digital data. Today, many parts of the African economy are dependent on these technologies for optimal development. Even large companies have turned to telework, complete with supply chains and internal network infrastructure that carry many risks.

Costly gaps

This revolution requires cybersecurity maturity levels commensurate with the threats it creates. Unfortunately, security standards are not yet widespread in Africa: 90% of African companies do not have sufficient cybersecurity protocols in place, according to Interpol’s 2021 Africa Cyber Threat Assessment.

Yet in the specific case of critical organisations and infrastructure, a cybersecurity incident can cause serious – sometimes irreversible –  damage. The lack of concrete measures also has a financial impact. In 2016, cybercrime cost the Kenyan economy $36 million (€32.5 million), the South African economy $573 million and the Nigerian economy $500 million. Building a secure ecosystem in the era of digitisation of a strategic, critical and sensitive world is, therefore, a high priority for African states.

The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the problem, with a sharp rise in cybercrime-related activities. Last July, a cyberattack targeting South Africa led to the closure of four of its major ports, while the economy is still struggling to recover from the effects of the pandemic. A glimpse of what we may face in the future…

Cyberattacks spare no one, and their perpetrators make no distinction as to size, industry or geographic location. Within large enterprises, cybercriminals target the most exposed departments, and readily use the vulnerability of one branch to take control of the entire network. As a result, it is now crucial to take a “holistic” view of cybersecurity and operate as a network.

Decompartmentalisation and collaboration

Within companies, specialised committees should be formed – bringing together all departments – to discuss company-specific cybersecurity issues. This should be done in a confidential environment, under the leadership of a person deemed sufficiently qualified. This is already happening on many boards in Europe as well as the United States, and the positive impact on the relationship between boards and CIOs is tangible. So much so that, according to research firm Gartner, 40 per cent of boards in these regions will have a dedicated cybersecurity committee overseen by a qualified board member by 2025, up from less than 10 per cent today.

Above all, it is crucial to continue to break down the silos of cybersecurity not only by strengthening collaboration between core businesses but also by improving the sharing of information by area of expertise and geography. For example, it is relevant that experts evolving in various geographical contexts and mastering subjects related to finance, postal services, telecommunications or even infrastructures can meet and share the problems and solutions of their sector with regard to cybercrime. By mobilising collective professional intelligence and comparing situations and points of view, we will be able to cover a wider area of vulnerability.

In this respect, the existence of multi-sector initiatives led by large companies and governments is important, in order to advance reflection on these subjects while structuring the African economic ecosystem around information security issues. This is one of the vocations of the Cyber Africa Forum 2022, which will be held May 9-10 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, organised by Ciberobs – Make Africa Safe and Jeune Afrique Media Group.

More than 300 key public and private actors and decision-makers in cybersecurity and digital trust in Africa – including the heads of Huawei, Ecobank and Orange – will be present to discuss issues related to “digital sovereignty and data protection” as well as all the major digital challenges facing Africa today and tomorrow. There is one objective: to promote the development of solid cybersecurity for sustainable innovation.

“Digitization without protection is dangerous,” says Roger Adom, Ivory Coast’s minister of digital economy. But in order to protect ourselves, we need to talk, reflect and act – together. This is how we’ll manage to face the threat of cybercriminals who have no qualms about collaborating and joining forces to achieve their goals.

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