One of the Kusi Ideas Festival’s themes is “The Pandemic Taught Us That African Integration Is A Winner”. Most of the instances of this integration have been physical – for example, the African Union preparing the continent to receive medical supplies and future vaccines, and African airlines moving desperately needed personal protective equipment (PPE) around the continent. What if the real winner here is when we can all come together online? What if we envisioned a “moonshot” for Africa that promises to bridge the digital divide and get millions of people online for the first time, knowing that when people are better connected, we can better manage the pandemic and become better prepared for our collective future?
According to the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development at Unesco, most Africans get access to the internet through data from their cell phones. However, the usage gap on the continent, or the percentage of people living inside mobile broadband coverage but not using mobile internet, stood at 49 per cent in 2019. Lack of digital skills and affordability are the two main drivers behind this gap – on average, one GB of data costs 9 per cent of monthly income in sub-Saharan Africa (the global standard is no more than 2 per cent). For many people across the continent, this puts getting online almost entirely out of reach.
Covid-19 has shown us in many ways that digital connectivity, particularly through our mobile phones, is crucial and that lack of it can have catastrophic effects. First, putting mobile data into people’s hands allows them to get access to information on demand, beyond what is supplied by government notifications, and perhaps even cheaper.
While there are mechanisms to get information on the pandemic to people without the internet via SMS or USSD, this information comes at a per-message cost, which is sometimes out of reach for the majority of the population. Second, as the pandemic has forced school closures and moved millions of children across the continent (and around the world) to online learning, lack of access to the internet is pushing millions of students in low-resource settings behind.
Third, diagnostic tools to monitor the spread of the virus and disseminate contact tracing information are often only available in Western markets - and even if they were available in sub-Saharan Africa, they would not be able to reach the unconnected. Currently, despite some successes on the continent in monitoring the spread of the virus, governments in the Global South are spending millions of dollars and wasting time and human resources doing contact tracing manually at the expense of their own citizens.
There are examples from around the world about how we can leverage mobile data and technology, even for those getting online for the first time, to better manage the pandemic and prepare for a post-Covid future. First, using national portals, emergency SMS services, social media, and devoted pandemic response apps, governments can spread timely and correct information about outbreak statistics, travel restrictions, guidance on protection from the virus, and government responses to the pandemic.
We can look to Taiwan as an exemplar. From April to mid-August 2020, Taiwan registered no domestic cases of Covid-19, with all new cases arising from inbound travellers.
Central data base
The country implemented a national contact tracing platform known as TRACE that handles case identification, contact identification, and contact health monitoring via phone and a central database. Their success in containing the pandemic has been heralded as a best practice for strategies for managing a future pandemic.
Second, internet access can both allow people to stay home, thus helping to contain the spread of the disease, and also formalise the informal economy, therefore creating innovations to connect people to work. Amal, a Palestinian company, created an app that uses machine learning technology to connect construction workers to projects, eliminating the need for gatherings of labourers in densely populated areas to be selected for work. Such gatherings could be sites for the spread of Covid-19.
Third, access to mobile data can help diagnose and monitor the spread of the virus. In Nigeria, Wellvis created the Covid-19 Triage Tool, a free online product where people can self-score their risks of contracting the virus and then gain access to relevant information about prevention and care.
Luckily, there is no shortage of actors working to get people online on the continent in unique ways. Amp Global (“AMP”), headquartered in Mauritius and with a presence in Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Africa, is an example of an African company doing its part to bridge the digital divide, with the vision of getting 70 per cent of Africans on 4G data by 2025. AMP partners with telecommunication companies to offer free data rewards to users on its app in exchange for amplifying and promoting content from African artists, removing the cost barriers that prevent people from getting access to mobile internet in the first place.
AMP is also bridging the local content gap, developing demand-driven content that African consumers want and simultaneously training African artists on digital skills that are in high demand in the continent’s job market. If AMP is successful in its vision and enables 75 per cent of Africa’s population to get online, there is a potential for this to create 44 million additional jobs.
We cannot underestimate the democratisation of data and the power of the internet in the post-Covid future - just getting people connected opens up a world of possibilities that goes beyond getting a job. If you put data in the hands of people and allow them to do with it what they want, it will bring unprecedented opportunities.
Through the internet, ordinary people can create products, services, and content to meet their community needs as evidenced by the pandemic. However, connecting the unconnected costs money and the task ahead of us is massive. A recent report from the Broadband Commission estimates that around $100 billion will be needed to achieve universal access to broadband connectivity in Africa.
Investing in digital skills and local content creation in the next 10 years alone will require $18 billion. Although AMP is a model to look towards, the company and other actors like it cannot do the work of getting hundreds of millions of people online by themselves. Governments, telecommunication companies, private sector actors, international organisations, and civil society need to move out of their silos to co-create and invest in a digitally resilient, more interconnected post-Covid future for Africa.
Isaac Kwaku Fokuo, Jr. Founder and Principal Botho Emerging Markets Group
This article was first published in a pullout in The EastAfrican on December 5, 2020.