by Joanne Carew

Africa’s public-private approach to tech bolsters fight against COVID

Nov 25, 2020
Digital Transformation Government Healthcare Industry

The pandemic has fueled digital transformation in Africa and sparked fresh thinking about how to use strategic public-private partnerships to achieve broad societal goals including healthcare and healthy markets.

handshake / meeting / teamwork / collaboration / partnership / trust
Credit: PeopleImages / Getty Images

A combination of legacy and emerging technology, along with public-private partnerships, has been a major force in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic throughout sub-Saharan Africa, say a wide range of IT leaders and government officials.

The pace of technology innovation throughout Africa is often hampered by infrastructure issues, as well as financial and bureaucratic constraints. But reaction to the pandemic in Africa shows that when faced with a massive disruptive event, like a global pandemic, there is a drive to overcome these stumbling blocks and a renewed vigour to put new technologies to the test, particularly for healthcare, according to a number of industry, government speakers at AfricaCom earlier this month.

Countries across Africa have been particularly strategic about combining the “old” with the new, according to Dr. Ahmed Ogwell Ouma, deputy director at Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

For example, the Africa CDC decided to partner with rural community health workers who have been in place on the ground for some time, and are now equipped with mobile technologies including apps that enable collection of information locally, in real time. “When you combine what people know with new tools, you can gather information quickly, analyse it and then adjust your response to achieve better results,” Ouma said at the recent Africom conference — the biggest tech event on the continent, this year taking place virtually.

The pandemic has made digital transformation in Africa a necessity, said Deemah Alyahya, a digital economy and innovation advisor and the founder and CEO of Women Spark, an angel VC investment network. This has had a positive impact on many small and medium-size businesses that were launched and built with digital business models, Alyahya said. One result of the pandemic has been increased use of cloud and e-commerce platforms such as home-delivery services.

“From children all the way up to the elderly, we’ve seen everyone using digital solutions. This has accelerated and enabled start-ups to expand their businesses and it has also provided them with fresh opportunities to innovate,” Alyahya said.

Public-private partnerships power COVID fight

Many African countries have witnessed a refreshing willingness from different groups within the public and private sector to work together for a common service end goal, notes Martin Labbé, tech sector development coordinator at the International Trade Centre, also speaking at AfricaCom.

“We don’t want to have many, small and isolated initiatives, we need to address the issue collectively,” Labbé said. For example, he noted, the telcos have been hugely influential across the continent because of their ability to connect people and also because of their access to key customer data.

In South Africa, for example, Telkom worked with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), to develop a contact tracing programme. Data from such programs can be fed into partner artificial intelligence platforms and then used to model and better understand the spread of the pandemic. 

Outside of its human toll, one drawback of the pandemic is that it has opened the door for cyberscams in Africa that take advantage of confusion surrounding controls and applications put in place to do contact tracing and control the spread of infections.

Trust in technology is key

While technology has enabled service providers to push out information quickly, we need to be mindful of misinformation, noted the CDC’s Ouma. “We live in an era where misinformation probably moves around faster than facts.” Much of this information relates to the presence of the virus and the development of vaccines to curb the outbreak, he said. This misinformation was particularly problematic on social media. In an effort to stop the spread of untruths, the CDC uses a rumour tracking system to monitor the COVID-related information that is being spread the most widely and then correct any inaccuracies.

But trust is not only an issue for members of the public. Key policy and decision makers are often not very tech savvy and they need to be introduced to emerging technology solutions very slowly and strategically, Ouma explained. “If we want them to quickly board and ride the technology boat, we’re missing a step. We have to bring them on board gently, that way they’ll have a better understanding of what we are trying to do.”

Public policy experts do need to get involved, agreed Miriam Altman, professor of practice for 4IR at the School of Economics at the University of Johannesburg and a commissioner at the South African Presidency’s National Planning Commission. 

While the private sector is usually expected to lead tech innovation, tech vendors left to their own devices create a situation where some people are incredibly well-served but the majority are underserved, Altman pointed out.

Meanwhile, support of healthcare initiatives now will create a foundation for a healthier market later, Ouma noted. “This is the time for a ‘common good’ approach. I want to call on the tech world to ensure that the technology that is coming out is made available to everyone so that we can quickly bring this thing to a close. And then we can all go back to making money again,” Ouma said.

But technology is not a pandemic silver bullet. Technologies and information systems can only do so much, Altman said. “As we’re seeing now in Europe, the UK and certainly the US where the virus is making a resurgence, we can have all of the data but we need to get people to take things seriously. This is a human problem. Tech is a beautiful thing but we have to be deliberate about how we articulate the situation and also focus our attention on the more human side of the problem.”