The global pandemic has accelerated the pace of technological innovation globally, and nowhere more so than in Africa. When it comes to employing technology in the fight against Covid-19, a number of African countries are leading the way. According to a WHO Africa study, 12.8 per cent of technologies developed globally in response to the pandemic are in Africa, and it’s already possible to identify the critical success factors in this wave of innovation.
Building on Local Context
In part motivated by the need to strengthen their existing health-system infrastructure, these innovations are home-grown, shaped by local actors searching for solutions in their local context. This means they are best positioned to build on embedded strengths and identify the precise gaps which need closing, such as the enduring weaknesses that have aggravated other public-health emergencies (such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic and Ebola outbreaks) and continue to negatively impact morbidity and mortality on the continent.
Sierra Leone’s Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI) introduced an array of tech-based solutions to fight Covid-19 and improve service delivery, some of which have been leveraged from the country’s experience containing Ebola. Niche Technologies, run by a former Director of Planning and Strategy in Sierra Leone’s National Ebola Response Centre, has partnered with the Sierra Leone government to utilise technology in Covid-19 response efforts, including digitising the end-to-end laboratory management system to respond to changing needs, and introducing an electronic pass system that essential businesses can use in order to safely continue operating during strict lockdown periods.[_] Another Sierra Leone tech success has been the launch of the country’s quarantine app with US social impact tech firm Dimagi, which digitised critical quarantine information that used to be logged on paper so it can now be tracked in real time.
Big and Small
African tech solutions are being applied to challenges large and small. From revolutionising entire health-service delivery systems to communicating simple messages to hard-to-reach communities, technological innovations have contributed to containing the pandemic at both societal and individual levels.
At the start of its initial lockdown in March, Rwanda found that low compliance with key directives – such as staying home or wearing a mask – was due to limited penetration of awareness-messaging teams in densely populated and high-risk zones as well as rural areas. To access these communities, the government deployed drones to communicate messages by air, allowing the government to critically increase its reach and even enforce lockdowns in targeted outbreak areas.[_] Rwanda’s tech-based application of containment policies has been hailed as a world-leading example: On 20 October, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted praise for the country’s pandemic response, highlighting its “use of technology in the service of public health”.[_]
Collaboration Between Governments, Non-Profits and the Private Sector
These tech achievements haven’t happened by accident. Rather, they are the result of governments in crisis-response mode converging with emerging innovation hubs across the continent, expediting the formation of cross-sector partnerships to develop potent technology-based solutions for controlling the spread of the virus.
Governments have teamed up with private firms and non-profits to modify existing technology or develop entirely new tools in order to better inform policy, support frontline workers and protect populations, demonstrating the potential of multi-stakeholder, cross-sector partnerships.
After the first case of Covid-19 was identified in South Africa on 5 March, the volume of calls to its public helpline was too high to manage, and misinformation was spreading alongside the virus. To solve the problem, South Africa’s National Department of Health partnered with Praekelt, a South African mobile-tech-focused non-profit, and the Facebook-owned social media platform WhatsApp to launch an interactive chatbot that responds to questions about Covid-19 in five different local languages.[_]
Within the first ten days, more than 3.5 million users had engaged with it.[_] The service was so successful in South Africa that the WHO adopted the technology for its own global helpline initiative, which launched in late March, collaborating with the same development partners.[_] Now available in 15 languages, the service is considered to have the potential to reach more than 2 billion people.[_]
While these innovations are making a real difference to governments’ abilities to contain the pandemic, it’s already clear that they will have profound implications for the continent beyond the current health crisis.
Tech-for-health innovations currently tailored to pandemic response will undoubtedly have an impact across African health systems, while improvements in evidence-based decision-making and service delivery will extend well beyond the health sphere. Entire economies will benefit, as countries that join in the tech revolution experience rapid transformation and the growth that comes with it.
The pandemic will – hopefully – recede in 2021. We now have the blueprint to ensure that the wave of innovation it unleashed will not.