by Jeremy Daniel

Africa embraces tech as it races to control the spread of coronavirus

News Analysis
Aug 05, 2020
GovernmentHealthcare IndustryIT Strategy

For now, it seems Africa has escaped the worst of the pandemic, and much of that success can be laid at the door of innovative thinking around technology and health.

mobile computing / devices / connectivity / mobile management / BYOD
Credit: PeopleImages / Getty Images

As winter settled in over Africa in April and May of 2020, people across the continent braced for the worst. There was a widespread expectation that the COVID-19 pandemic would wreak havoc across the continent and that the numbers of infections and deaths would accelerate like they were doing in countries like Brazil, Italy and the U.S. And indeed South Africa has been hit hard by the virus, but deaths have remained muted and, broadly speaking at this stage of the pandemic, the continent seems to be faring better than expected. 

Of course, there’s still a long way to go, and it’s possible that the numbers are vastly under-reported, but there have also been innovative uses of technology that have stopped the coronavirus in its tracks and made a material difference in the lives of many people.

Here’s a quick look around the continent at some of the most interesting African solutions that have emerged in these unprecedented times.

Healthcare services are the primary focus

The pandemic has been a great accelerator for innovation and co-operation across Africa. In June, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the launch of the Africa Medical Supplies Platform, which describes itself as a website “partner with governments at all levels to assist COVID-19 response teams with sourcing, procurement, and distribution of critical medical equipment.”

From N95 masks to sanitizers, ventilators to diagnostic testing kits, organizations can use their collective strength to access medical supplies at better prices, and facilitate transactions and delivery.

It’s a great example of tech breaking down boundaries and fostering cross-border collaboration on the continent.  

Another initiative in this category is Benin-based Kea Medicals has been working on connecting hospitals and different health stakeholders on a single mobile platform through a universal medical ID. Serving Benin, Cote d’voire and Nigeria, the organization has noted that health workers can spend up to 40 percent of their consultation time trying to access patient’s medical records and information. Obviously, that is a massive waste of time and energy and Kea Medicals is creating a single database through a Universal Medical-ID attached to a QR-code.

Meanwhile, there is a real anxiety and a lack of information around COVID-19 as it relates to pregnancy and motherhood. That’s why a group of South African NGO’s have banded together to create an information platform, Messages for Mothers, specifically for this vulnerable group of women. They are publishing content in a variety of South African languages around issues such as “Explaining COVID-19 to Young Children,” “Coping with Depression, Anxiety, and Addiction during COVID-19” as well as stories around domestic violence and any risks to foetus. The platform offers a web portal and uses digital channels including mobile apps like WhatsApp to disseminate information about a variety of risks. It’s a vital lifeline to an underserved community. 

The COVID-19 Triage tool is a new online risk assessment tool developed by the Nigerian startup Wellvis. Their goal is to help people to realistically determine their risk levels in an effort to prevent hospitals being over-run by patients who are worried about their symptoms and looking to be tested. 

“The tool has helped to reduce the number of unnecessary and curious callers to disease control hotlines,” said Dr. Wale Adeosun, CEO of Wellvis, adding that the app has been used by almost half a million people globally since March 19.

Hackathons and Challenges

As the virus tightened its grip on South Africa during June and July, innovative organizations and government-backed initiatives came together for a series of hackathons designed to find new Africa-specific solutions.

Capitec Bank funded a 10-team hackathon that started on June 29, stating that its goal is finding “new tech and new talent to help South Africans live better in a post-COVID world. As an added bonus, the winning team will take home a cash prize of R100 000.”

Other developments include: The World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa has hosted its first virtual hackathon; the African Development Bank is launching the #AfricaVsVirus challenge; the Ghana Tech Lab and Mastercard Foundation’s Young Africa Works programme is sponsoring six African innovators to develop solutions — and the list grows longer every day. It’s all designed to bring together talent that understands the African environment and can develop specific solutions for the pandemic.  “Innovation can play a critical role in this regard”, says Dr Moredreck Chibi, the WHO regional innovation advisor. “It should be part of our DNA going forward.”

Rethinking Commerce

Of course, it’s not just in the medical arena where change is happening. Businesses are looking at new financial models and rethinking the ways that they charge consumers.  

In an effort to reduce the physical exchange of currency, which can carry the virus, Africa’s largest mobile-money product, M-Pesa, made the decision to waive fees for small transactions and have raised daily transaction limits.  Another big investment in new payments technology was announced by Altech Card Solutions, which said it will “begin enabling its retail customers to bring to market a wide variety of alternative payment schemes, including QR-based schemes and mobile-based POS devices to meet the growing market and customer demand for alternative payment methods.” Altech is using ACI Worldwide technology to implement its strategy and the African director of ACI, Dan van der Westhuizen explained how “the pandemic is accelerating the demand for and the global adoption of new alternative and digital payments methods.” 

The push for a cashless society is also being embraced by the mobile payment application Karri, which has made great inroads into South African schools as an alternative to giving children cash to pay for services. CEO Doug Hoernle writes in an email that “A recent study by LendEDU shows that the average credit or debit card had a Germ Score of 285 and the average cash Germ Score was 160. The higher the Germ Score the dirtier the surface, with food establishments required to have Germ Score of 10 or less.”

The longer the virus spreads uncontained, the more likely it is that cashless payment services will see  a large uptake across the continent. 

In that vein, a Ugandan app called Market Garden is being used for the sale and delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables to customers who cannot visit markets due to the regulations around social distancing. It’s an empowering tool for women who sell at local markets and has had great success in making them feel safer, in addition to its use against coronavirus. 

Adapting existing apps to meet the challenge

For every cloud there’s a silver lining. The number of rhinos being poached has plummeted since March. Now the app which was normally used to curb poaching is being used to record screening data and assist in tracking potential coronavirus cases. The Cmore app, which was developed by the Council For Scientific and Industrial Research, is used by screeners who go door-to-door, asking questions and saving the data on the app for collective analysis.

South African startup Namola offers a 24-hour emergency response service during the normal course of business. But it’s latest software updates have added a suite of COVID-19 support tools. Users who update are now able to get a window into the latest case statistics, access important helplines, read the latest news and sign up to receive COVID-19 alerts.

As a safety app, one of their primary concerns during this time is around domestic violence. The CEO of Namola, Peter Matthaei, issued a statement which read, “We encourage our fellow South Africans to access important services such as the Domestic Abuse hotline, Childline and a Mental Health hotline through the Namola app if they need additional support.”

Education is one of the areas of the economy that is being forced to adapt quickly. With e-learning taking center stage for students, the University of Cape Town put in a request to mobile operators for a “zero-rating” on selected websites, and were delighted with the response from Telkom and Cell C.  Six of the university’s most important websites, including the library, the student portal, and the main website can all be reached at zero cost. “We are so grateful to both Cell C and Telkom for this generous assistance,” said the vice-chancellor of UCT, Mamokgethi Phakeng. “It allows our students to continue their academic year online, and it allows UCT to provide the best possible support and resources online to students at a time when it is impossible to continue face-to-face teaching.”  

Privacy is one of the foremost concerns for Cape Town-based app developers The Delta. They have developed sophisticated personal data management software that is packaged in an app called Via. Now they are working to customize that app so that it offers the ability for citizens to track their COVID-19 status and, working with German accelerator Gesund Zusammen, make that data available to authorities so that the virus, not the person, is being tracked. 

The African response to the pandemic illustrates how there are many opportunities to be found in these unusual circumstances for tech vendors, governments, startups and private enterprises that can pivot and innovate solutions that are practical for the continent. The fight against Coronavirus is going to be with us for some time longer, but with the right technology enlisted, Africans have an opportunity to carry on avoiding the worst-case scenario until a vaccine is found and deployed worldwide.