A burst of creativity has put mobile technology at the forefront of combatting COVID-19 in Africa, and is likely to change e-commerce permanently.
As countries across the continent brace for an expected wave of COVID-19 cases in the coming winter months, Africans are learning that one of the most effective tools to fight the spread of the disease is already in their hands.
The mobile phone has emerged as a very powerful aid for enterprises and governments who are trying to educate, inform, test and trace people to prevent the novel coronavirus from becoming a humanitarian disaster, and initiatives to harness the power of mobile in the fight are being announced on a daily basis across sub-Saharan Africa.
Nowhere was this sentiment made clearer than during South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech to the nation on April 6, when he extended the lockdown for a further two weeks. In that address, Ramaphosa thanked mobile operator Vodacom for the donation of 20,000 mobile phones for health workers to use in the screening and tracing process in communities.
That’s just one example of many. Below are some of the more interesting uses of mobile technology to combat COVID-19 in Africa. The creativity and quick time-to-market displayed by developers in all sorts of organisations is likely to permanently alter the mobile business landscape, as app users get used to new ways of communicating and transacting.
Healthcare services are the primary focus
It stands to reason that most of the creative energy around mobile tech right now is going into healthcare interventions for mobile devices.
Benin-based Kea Medicals is 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.
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. 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, before adding that the app has been used by more than 380,000 people globally since March 19.
Hackathons and Challenges
Every day, it seems that more and more organizations are gathering innovators and entrepreneurs together and challenging them to come up with specific African solutions to the pandemic. Many if not most of the applications are mobile-based or have a mobile component.
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."
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.
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
Many of Africa’s mobile developers are finding ways to customize their existing offerings to suit the times.
Sout 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," the Vice-Chancellor of UCT said. "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 which 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.
It goes to show that there are many opportunities to be found in these unusual circumstances for tech vendors, governments, startups and private enterprises that are willing to adapt and provide vital services for Africans. The fight against Coronavirus is going to be a long, slow and sometimes heartbreaking journey. But with the right technology enlisted, and the experience gathered from witnessing the fight in America, Asia and Europe, Africans have an opportunity to avoid the worst-case scenario until a vaccine is found and deployed worldwide.