Maps for Africa: Why they matter

by John O. Kakonge

Pambazuka News | 13 October, 2016

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Given the value of mapping, African governments need to raise funds from different sources, including from their development partners, the private sector, international foundations and other users to support not only the training of qualified cartographers and surveyors but also to procure new equipment and software to assist in the design of  quality maps.

According to Warren (2004), “Maps are more than pieces of paper. They are stories, conversations, lives and songs lived out in a place, and are inseparable from the political and cultural contexts in which they are used’’. Other scholars see maps as social documents, created in a particular social and cultural context. However, whichever way they are viewed, maps have been used since time immemorial and have played an important role in the history of humankind. They ignited the spirit of adventure in many people, especially those from Europe, and the desire to discover continents and places yet unknown to them.

The relationship between maps and Africa is particularly charged. As Africa was the last continent to be fully explored, its maps were always seen as the most mysterious and alluring. Tellingly, a map of Africa hangs on the wall in Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, symbolizing the unknown, the romantic “other”, to which the characters in the play long to escape from their dreary provincial reality.

But Africa is mysterious and unknown no longer and its maps are no longer repositories of mysteries and speculation, but a record of its infrastructure, resources and potential. At least, that is what their role should be. Maps continue to attract both proponents and critics, especially when it comes to the coverage of certain regions of the world. For example, many areas of Africa are still not adequately covered in the continent’s maps. This is the result of either deliberate policy or a lack of interest on the part of African governments after their states achieved independence. There are several possible reasons for this state of affairs, including a lack of funds to invest in map making, a lack of skilled professionals, a lack of up-to-date data, to name but a few. This brief paper will try to discuss the challenges that map making faces in Africa and some of the opportunities.

  1. Lack of funds

Many people do not know how to use a map. There is, therefore, a lack of demand for new or updated maps and little pressure on government authorities to allocate the funds necessary to produce them. The cost can be prohibitive and, as Wan (2014) argues, mapping has become privatized because no individual country, in particular those from Africa, has the vast resources needed to compete in map making with big companies such as Google.

Irrespective of who is funding maps, be it the private sector or individual governments, they have a reason for so doing and a purpose. Google’s maps, for example, are driven by commercial interests. It would make no sense for Google to make its maps free. There are some African governments that are very active in the field and have set aside funds for the production of new maps and other related products. For their part, those African governments and organizations that have limited financial resources need to come up with innovative ways of raising funds for map making, such as joint ventures with the private sector. In addition, government survey offices could make available specialized maps for sale to individuals and organizations that want specific information, such as on areas good for farming, with reference to specific crops.

2. Lack of trained personnel

Qualified and certified cartographers are needed for the design of credible maps. For example, to design a map of soils, forestry and the environmental situation of a particular place, a country needs the services of qualified cartographers and surveyors, in addition to specialists in environmental issues. In many African countries, few people are qualified to design or update quality maps.

Based on findings from a survey of the African region conducted on behalf of the University of Edinburgh, Stuart et al. (2008) recommend that African member states should increase the pool of trained staff and encourage international organizations to support funding of the training. They argue that, in South Africa, the limitations for the production of maps centre on personnel rather than on funding; furthermore the shortage of trained personnel is due to the lack of awareness and support among senior managers responsible for GIS and related technologies.

Another significant challenge faced by cartographers or researchers designing maps relates to the hardware they use. In many African countries, the hardware and software sed for training personnel have become outdated and are expensive to replace. This problem continues to inhibit efforts to upgrade the skills of cartographers and surveyors.

In addition, poor or inadequate salaries and allowances to attract and retain trained staff represent another challenge in Africa, especially in the cartography sector. African governments and private sector enterprises in African countries should therefore offer competitive salaries to professional cartographers, surveyors and other related staff.

3. Lack of data

Creating or updating maps requires high-quality information and data, obtained by carrying out baseline studies and research. Once the research is over and the information has been collected, it should be reviewed and approved before it is given to the cartographers to plot it on the maps. Once information is represented on a map, a panel of experts should review the work again and confirm whether it is credible or not.

According to Professor Monmonier (1996), maps can lie and at times can be misleading. Yet, as a rule, maps are very useful. For instance, it is difficult to find the residential address of the inhabitants of many African cities or towns. This is because of the lack of data needed to enable cartographers and surveyors to draw maps clearly identifying streets and locations for easier access, as is done in more developed countries. In a recent article by Waweru (2016), on Cameroon, the author notes that getting around town could be a puzzle without a grasp of the landmarks and how the residents know them. To avoid these challenges, the Mayor of Yaoundé has begun a project to bring some order across the city, not only by naming every street but also by numbering every plot and coming up with an urban plan. This will help not only emergency services but also foreigners visiting the city. A similar urban mapping exercise is under way in Addis, where cadastral information has always been scrappy and chaotic, where it existed at all.

According to Christopher Groskopf (2016), in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Africa, which includes nine countries, seems to disappear most frequently. This is because of data missing for the entire sub-region. Interestingly, missing or a complete lack of data was recognized during the 18th century by the poet Jonathan Swift (Untold News, 2016)when the experts of the day decided to fill the blank spaces in maps with the few things they knew at the time to reside in an exotic place like Africa, namely, monkeys, lions and elephants. Although narrow in scope and scanty in detail, the other missing information and data on Africa was provided by the earlier explorers and the rest of Africa remained incognito to Western society for many years to come.

The lack of data is being addressed currently by the rise of Google Maps, which are being disseminated by the Google apps. Thus, Google information is enabling users to see aerial photographs and street maps in many parts of the world. In the future, with these advances in information gathering, it may be possible to deal effectively with subjectivity in map making and finally design objective maps. As pointed out by Wan (2014), paraphrasing the statesman and writer Lennart Meri, the information a map can convey is limited, but the symbol of power it can convey is almost limitless.

4. Lack of policies and laws for mapping

As the saying goes, “information is power”; collecting and analysing information, however, is not cheap. African governments should ensure that they protect their available information as well as their maps. For example, when carrying out any serious research, the researcher requires permission to use information, especially from government sources and from other organizations. At the end of the project, the researcher has to acknowledge the sources of information. This is standard practice in many African countries under prevailing policies and laws.

Clearly, existing policies could assist African governments and organizations sponsoring the maps to make money. For instance, Google continues to offer maps over the web as a goodwill gesture. Developers who use Google Maps, such as Apple and others, not only support Google’s advertising efforts but also their businesses use the Google logos on these maps for a fee. There is, however, information in the form of data or maps that could pose a security risk and some governments will not release security documents or maps. India, for example, drafted a bill in May 2016 that controls the acquisition, dissemination, publishing and distribution of geographical information in and outside the country (Government of India, 2016). This bill could make the daily use of maps illegal, since it demands a three-month vetting and approval process for any use of mapping.

There are various viewpoints: some people feel that if India enacts this bill in its present form, it will seriously affect the economic opportunities of the country. Others feel that the government is doing the right thing. Whatever one’s standpoint, the example from India suggests that each African country should formulate laws and policies to sensibly regulate the mapping of areas of vital national security interest. Moreover, the African governments should determine the sections of the laws and policies relating to mapping which need updating or amendment.

African governments should make sure that geospatial data and sensitive maps receive the protection they need. Most importantly, African governments should set the rules that determine the standards and protocols applicable to data collection, storage, labelling, integration, ownership, confidentiality, privacy, and copyright protection.

5. Opportunities for map making in Africa

An area where maps have played an important role is in public health. For instance, Dr. John Snow, a physician in England in the mid-1800s, traced a cholera outbreak in the City of London. Thereafter, he plotted his data on a street map of London; he convincingly showed that an individual outbreak was centred around a particular well (Eros, 2015). Based on his data, he convinced authorities to close down the offending pump and helped to stop a more massive outbreak of the disease.

Another example is the effort to combat Ebola virus disease in the Mano River Union countries (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone), which was difficult and complex. Emily Eros (2016), of the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team, confirmed that public health workers solicited the services of the remote mapping volunteers to add roads and buildings to the base maps of the Mano River countries. This exercise was very useful in tracking the people affected by Ebola. Given that the region remains vulnerable, with a fragile public health system, there is a need to update the Open Street Map to add useful information. This information would be critical not only for development purposes but also in case there is another health crisis.

In addition, in 2015 the American Red Cross carried out a massive fieldwork mapping campaign covering 5,000 villages in the border regions of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The mapping exercise focused on collecting important information relating to public health resources, different aspects of vulnerability, and amenities such as markets that would draw people across borders – of particular importance should another Ebola outbreak occur. Lessons from the Ebola outbreak demonstrate that a detailed map could facilitate the public health response to any outbreaks as well as other humanitarian and development activities.

Despite the challenges mentioned earlier regarding data, Kreutz (2009) acknowledges that open maps are excellent examples to demonstrate several ways in which to use and link information in creative ways. Likewise, under the Harvard Africa Map Project, the continent of Africa can be viewed through different data layers. Using open map data around the issue of climate change can provide planners with useful information on where to build new infrastructure. Whatever the case, online map making needs to adhere to the ethical principles of respecting confidentiality, obtain prior approval from government authorities and avoid exposing knowledge holders at risk (Kreutz, 2009).

Governments in some regions of Africa – notably, that covered by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – are using maps and other cartographic processes to identify and chart the most poverty-stricken areas, enabling them to pint-point their assistance interventions. In addition, topographical maps are proving invaluable in guiding mineral exploration and development ventures, revealing areas most propitious for the exploitation of oil, gas, diamonds, rutile and other resources, and for agricultural development. Accordingly, African governments should revisit their position on maps and be prepared to invest more in the necessary data collection.


Given the value of mapping, African governments need to raise funds from different sources, including from their development partners, the private sector, international foundations and other users to support not only the training of qualified cartographers and surveyors but also to procure new equipment and software to assist in the design of  quality maps. Collaboration in map making will offer great opportunities to African governments, organizations, academia and others to unlock the potential of economic sectors such as tourism, agriculture, transport and civil aviation as well as to support emergency services. In short, maps can help African governments, various organizations, academic institutions and individuals to make good choices and decisions.

Moreover, maps could provide individual leaders, governments, and organizations with suggestions and solutions to tackling both simple and complex development problems.  As in developed countries, African governments should manage their information assets and enforce restrictions on access to confidential data and maps.

* Amb. John O. Kakonge is a Sustainable Development Consultant and Adviser.


Eros, E. (2016). “Field Mapping at scale in West Africa”. |Available at Accessed 12 Sept. 2016.

Government of India – Ministry of Interior (2016). “The Geospatial Information Regulation Bill (Draft) 2016”. Available at,%202016.pdf. Accessed 21 Sept. 2016.

Groskopf, C. (2016) “Why is Central Africa missing from so many maps?” Quartz Africa. Available at Accessed 8 Sept. 2016

Kreutz, C. (2009). “The race to map Africa and ethical issues around online mapping”. Available at…. Accessed 20 Sept. 2016.

Monmonier, M. (1996). How to lie with Maps, second edition, Chicago, USA, University of Chicago Press.

Stuart, N., Moss, D., Radikonyana, P. and Hodgart, B. (2008). “Making geographic information systems work in developing countries: views from African practitioners”. Available from http: //–1—Fibre-GIS-in-developing-countries.Pdf. Accessed 12 Sept. 2016.

Wan, J. (2014). “Terabyte Incognita: Africa Might Not Look Like You Think It Does”. In: Untold News (2016). “Do we see the real Africa on Google Maps?” Available at Accessed 21 Sept. 2016.

Warren, A. (2004). International forum on indigenous mapping for indigenous advocacy and empowerment.TheIndigenousCommunities Mapping Initiative. Personal communication. As quoted in Rambaldi, G., “Who Owns the Map Legend”, paper presented at the 7th International Conference on GIS for Developing Countries (GISDECO 2004), 10–12 May 2004, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Johor Malaysia, URISA Journal.

Waweru, W. (2016). “Streets with no names; navigating the maze of African cities.” Available at Accessed 20 September 2016.




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