David Parrish speaks to entrepreneurs across Africa to hear how different circumstances demand different approaches to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Businesses in countries throughout Africa are responding creatively in their own different ways to the Covid-19 pandemic. First world solutions cannot be simply replicated in African countries. Since healthcare infrastructure is generally very poor, government strategies focus on lockdowns – often severely enforced – to protect populations from infection. This creates serious challenges for day-to-day life at the grassroots and for businesses, large and small.
At the same time, creative solutions are emerging in all sectors of the economy. Small businesses, tech giants, NGOs and the public sector are devising initiatives that are born from the realities – and indeed from the opportunities – of African circumstances. These endeavours include a range of innovations involving mobile phones, neighbourhood ‘tuck shops’, crowdsourcing and business ‘pivots’.
Creative responses to the pandemic emerging throughout Africa include:
To get ready for Covid-19, LifeBank, Nigeria’s blood delivery startup has launched an open source platform. ‘Quip’ creates a national register of working and broken respirators, defibrillators and ICU beds in an effort to crowdsource scarce and desperately needed medical equipment. This will then be made available to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). The health-tech firm has also put out an appeal to engineers with the skills to repair specialist medical kit.
Even simple preventative measures such as social distancing and frequent hand washing are virtually impossible in communities with crowded accommodation and a lack of basic water supplies. According to a 2019 joint report by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, just 59% of Kenyans have access to basic water supplies and only 29% have access to sanitation services. Only 14% have hand washing facilities with soap and water at home.
So Kenya’s Safe Hands project is a solution to a real problem. An alliance of tech and other companies launched Safe Hands Kenya to enable data-driven distribution of free soap, hand sanitiser, surface disinfectant and masks to all Kenyans. Andrew Waititu, CEO of Safe Hands Kenya explains: “Rapid mass sanitation of hands and surfaces combined with adoption of masks is a pragmatic and scalable strategy in the Kenyan context. We are developing an actionable blueprint for other countries facing similar challenges. Our intent is to scale and sustain Safe Hands Kenya’s operations for as long as they are needed.”
The organisation also points out that rapid mass sanitation will have knock-on beneficial effects on public health, for example by reducing deaths from diarrhoea. “There is no downside in soap,” they conclude.
The locked down economies of Europe and elsewhere can switch to online alternatives with relative ease: working from home with wifi; holding meetings on Zoom; schooling using iPads. These are not options in most African communities. Extensive broadband infrastructure is not in place. Though there are estimated to be 456 million unique mobile phone subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa, data is prohibitively expensive for the vast majority. While smartphone use has increased dramatically, a report in 2018 found that only 23% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population used mobile internet regularly.
So, whilst first world adaptations using fast data connections are not feasible, there are nevertheless simpler solutions. Farmers in Kutus Town, Kenya, support each other through non-profit association ICOSEED. Managing director Patrick G. Muriuki is unequivocal: “Using WhatsApp and text messages has kept our businesses going.”
Mobile phones also provide money transfer services. Though banks have developed apps, it’s the mobile phone networks in Africa that are leading the way in money transfer, serving the millions of people without bank accounts. Kenya has one of the highest rates of digital finance adoption in the world. Kenya’s Communication Authority reports that 32 million of the country’s 53 million population have mobile-money accounts. This is largely due to the dominance of Kenya’s M-Pesa service, run by telecoms giant Safaricom. To reduce the physical exchange of money, M-Pesa has waived fees on small transactions, following a request by President Uhuru Kenyatta. In this way, mobile money can also be regarded as a public health tool to counter the spread of coronavirus.
Mobile phones also allow education to continue while schools are closed. Eneza Education in Kenya has partnered with Safaricom to deliver free learning materials, even to the simplest of mobiles.
Without extensive broadband and wifi facilities available, there has already been a new wave of projects that utilise well-established communication channels: radio and television.
Jelena Mitrović, executive director at NGO Young Africa Botswana (YAB), told me: “In this crisis, speed is crucial and we acted quickly to grasp the opportunity to deliver our entrepreneurship courses through local radio station Yarona FM when we had to close our Skills and Youth Centre.”
Radio and TV stations in Botswana are responding in various ways. Cathy Malejane at Gabz FM said : “We have changed our radio programming significantly to address the needs of our audiences at this time.” Many of these spontaneous pivots also represent a turning point – no different for many of the responses we’ve seen globally. “Botswana TV televised parliament for the first time for the debate about extending the state of emergency. People had been calling for televisation of parliament for decades! We were told that it wasn’t possible because there wasn’t the capacity. But it happened. It’s a breakthrough and there will be no going back,” she tells me.
Permits are needed in Botswana to leave home, even for essential shopping and this process has also gone online. A text message provides proof of government permission, including a specific date and time slot, for citizens to show to soldiers manning checkpoints.
Creative opportunism emerges from using what is actually available. Small neighbourhood ‘tuck shops’ – kiosk-like grocery stores – are deemed ‘essential’ and remain open during Botswana’s lockdown. Mitrović explains: “YAB approached the government and offered assistance, using the tuck shops as communication hubs, to distribute information leaflets and to get feedback. People write back to us with their requests and share practical tips for surviving the lockdown.” Sometimes, simple and low-tech is best. Whatever works.
Creative and tech entrepreneurs are playing their part in non-profit healthcare and social initiatives during the pandemic. They are also striving to save their businesses from bankruptcy, sometimes pivoting into new products, services or markets, using their core skills and creativity.
In Namibia, award-winning entrepreneur Pedro Da Fonseca, founder and CEO of Black Gold Engineering, is a pioneer in innovative LED street lighting products. His company has been hard hit. Imports of essential components have stopped because the shipping ports are in lockdown; public sector contracts are on hold; and currency exchange rates are crippling.“The US Dollar has skyrocketed, so parts are much more expensive. We would need to increase our prices by 40%,” he says. “A project with [Namibian city] Walvis Bay Municipality to supply 2,000 streetlights is on hold.” However, he has found a way to pivot to keep his business solvent: “At this moment we can diversify enough to survive. We have won contracts to supply and install our LED lighting to the newly-built government quarantine centres, including one at Katutura State Hospital.”
Another Namibian businessman has pivoted from his usual line of work to charter aircraft to import supplies, selling excess capacity to other businesses desperate for crucial materials.
In certain ways, Africa is more prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic than more developed continents. It has been here before, with AIDS and Ebola. Schools in Sierra Leone and Liberia have rapidly switched to radio-based education, using systems developed during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Botswana has created a community-based infrastructure to test for AIDS, which continues, so an active grassroots network is already in place for coronavirus testing.
In an emergency we have to use whatever is available; speed is more important than perfection; high-tech and low-tech each have a role to play. A crisis is a combination of danger and opportunity. Africa certainly faces imminent danger from the pandemic, but imaginative solutions are emerging right now, to suit local needs. Africa’s creativity is already reducing the danger by imaginatively embracing opportunity.
Find out more about some of the businesses we’ve spoken to:
Quip, by Lifebank, has created a national register of working and broken respirators, defibrillators and ICU beds, to crowdsource scarce medical equipment.
Safe Hands Kenya is using data-driven distribution of free soap, hand sanitiser, surface disinfectant and masks to all Kenyans – which also has beneficial knock-on effects on public health. “There is no downside in soap,” it says.
Young Africa Botswana is teaching skills to young people via local radio stations.
Gabz FM is using its reach to respond to the needs of local people.
Black Gold Engineering has found imports of its street light components locked down in shipping ports, but is now installing LED lighting in newly-built government quarantine centres.
The imagery accompanying this piece is courtesy of the businesses and intiatives featured – see @tibanisisi and safehandskeyna.com for more