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The response of Africa's technology sector to the COVID-19 outbreak

Cash, data and information

05 May 2020

Following outbreaks in Asia and Europe, African countries are witnessing a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases. The Africa branch of the World Health Organisation called on African countries to implement critical actions while there is still time to prevent the outbreak from overwhelming health services. Several tech companies across Africa have responded to this call by implementing a range of measures in an attempt to contain the spread and alleviate the effects of COVID-19.

Increased use of mobile money transactions

Tech companies across Africa have introduced measures to reduce the physical exchange of currency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In Nigeria, the digital payments start-up Paga now allows merchants to accept payments from Paga customers for free. Jumia, an online marketplace headquartered in Nigeria has reduced fees on its JumiaPay finance product to encourage digital payments over cash. In Kenya, the largest mobile services provider Safaricom has implemented a fee-waiver on their leading mobile money product, M-Pesa. In an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, South African start-up Yoco has issued a directive to clients to encourage customers to use the contactless payment option on its point of sale machines. Further, Ghana's monetary body has eased KYC requirements for making mobile money transfers. This will allow citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers. 

Companies increasing data connectivity

There has been a varied approach from the technology sector to bolster the use of data and digital networks to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.

The South African government have announced that telecommunication companies have agreed to give the government user location data to help track the spread of the coronavirus. The announcement comes as the South Africa telecoms regulator announced that MTN, Vodacom and Telkom have been granted additional emergency spectrum to deal with a spike in data demand during the coronavirus outbreak. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) confirmed in April that it would release this emergency spectrum and invited licence applications from telecoms firms. All successful licensees must support and create virtual teaching and remote classrooms and should not charge for use of any coronavirus-related websites identified by the Department of Health.

In Kenya, the focus has instead been on improving network access as Covid-19 makes remote working a necessary capability. On 23 March, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) approved the Google Loon project, accelerating the programme launch. Google's Loon Service aims to use stratospheric balloons to provide uniform 4G coverage to areas with limited land infrastructure.

Use of online platforms to disseminate information

In Nigeria, InStrat Global Health Solutions have developed a COVID-19 app to provide health workers with accurate COVID-19 information. The app will enable front-line health workers and epidemic response officers to better identify, screen and manage suspected carriers of COVID-19. It also helps health workers to notify authorities of positive tests to help minimize the potential of spreading. Similarly, iQube Labs have developed a tech solution to help health authorities manage the high volume of calls they are receiving, after winning a USD 2,000 grant from Ventures Platform. The app, called MyServiceAgent, sends individuals' queries regarding COVID-19 to the appropriate departments of the agency responsible for disease control, giving them the advice they need.

In South Africa, crowdsolving start-up Zindi is offering cash prizes to the 12,000 data scientists across Africa who have registered on its platform (which uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems) to find solutions to curb the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Kenyan healthtech start-up Afya Rekod is in discussions to accelerate the launch of its blockchain-based consumer health data platform, originally scheduled to go live at the end of July 2020. The platform will allow users to store their health data in real time, and uses AI to detect outbreaks and monitor the evolution of diseases.

Amref Health Africa is deploying its LEAP platform to disseminate official guidance on dealing with the coronavirus outbreak to health professionals across Africa. The platform is the product of a public private partnership involving Accenture, M-Pesa Foundation, Safaricom, Vodafone and the Government of Kenya, which was set up to develop a sustainable and scalable mobile learning academy for health workers across Africa. Jumia is adapting its digital retail network to spread public health notices on COVID-19 as well.

Donations made by technology companies

On 22 March, Jack Ma, the billionaire co-founder of Alibaba donated a planeload of protective medical equipment which has since been distributed among the 54 countries of Africa. The plane carried 5.4 million facemasks, kits for 1.08 million COVID-19 detection tests, 40,000 sets of protective clothing and 60,000 sets of protective face shields. The African Union announced that Ethiopian Airlines would help distribute the equipment to each of its member states. Further, Jumia is supporting the fight against COVID-19 by donating certified face masks to health ministries in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria, and Uganda, drawing on its supply networks outside of Africa.

Uche Eseonu, Ioana Burtea and Tom Dyer contributed to the writing of this article