By Eric M.K Osiakwan
President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel once said “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. It provides the opportunity to do things that were not possible to do before”. When the COVID-19 crisis hit the global north the fear was that it would be most devastating in Africa with Bill Gates predicting that ten million lives would be wiped out by the virus. But he was wrong because African leaders did what was not possible before – they locked down their countries and instituted adherence to the protocols of social distancing and washing of hands. These preventive measures and the sudden change of behavior slowed down the virus’s serious impact in Africa. According to Harvard Health preventing the spread of the virus is rooted in behavioral change. Starting up new behavior in the new normal was what the US and Europe could not do but Africa was able to – in record time and so was Asia. Latin America is facing the consequence of not starting up the new normal.
After a successful digital industry response to COVID-19 project in South Africa www.covid19-ict.com, Andile Ngcaba (A Pan African Technologist) requested an online meeting with a group of African technology entrepreneurs and software engineers to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the African continent. During this online meeting we discussed ways in which we could leverage technology to solve the pandemic across the continent. Andile muted that he is building of an Ubuntu driven Cloud Native Platform that will be host to African Tech Volunteers. The platform will showcase COVID-19 innovations by African entrepreneurs. After this meeting Andile got a group of software engineers together and began building Combat COVID-19 Africa. The platform allows for Africans to combat the pandemic through sharing, collaboration and resource allocation. We continued to have these meetings discussing different functions the platform should have and how it can be adopted all over the continent. The Cloud Native platform uses Kurbenetes as an orchestrator and Tensorflow for the Machine Learning Framework.
The CombatCovid19 Africa (CCA) startup was born through an open participatory process and was later described by the ATU Secretary General Mr. John OMO as a “platform of platforms”. Andile charged the team “we would be flying this aircraft whiles building it” and they launched unto it – working twenty hours a day from March 15th and by the end of April they had a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for use. According to Andile “this is a cloud native platform built on Open Source principles and systems”. It is the birth of Africa’s indigenous knowledge and digital platform with cloud resources, virtual machines and deep learning frameworks. He has emphasized the need for a large open source community in Africa to help drive innovation around the continent. Today the platform is widely adopted with 44 countries and 263 cities on it so on 16th July 2020 we would be showcasing Africa’s ingenuity and innovation – celebrating the entrepreneurs and engineers who made this possible in record time. It is an African platform built by African that has gone global virally with no markeing spend or advertising.
Some of the platforms running on the platform are; Covi-ID – a privacy-preserving, open-source platform that uses QR codes to share health credentials from South Africa. Existing track and trace solutions to fight COVID-19 depend critically on widespread adoption of smartphone usage, but 55% of users in Africa do not own a smartphone. Alternative methods to obtain geo-location data, including cell tower triangulation are imprecise and likely to be ineffective so QR codes are one way to go.
AfrikanCreate is a free online volunteer platform for African creatives to share ideas and collaborate on relief projects aimed at addressing COVID-19 challenges. These creative works by volunteers on the platform is used in campaigns to provide messages of hope to affected communities. Echoing messages of encouragement to the people that are working in the front lines of the pandemic. Of course, other people may not be as expressive but do want to share their creative perspective on what is happening around them, this is the platform for that, as long as it raises awareness or education about the pandemic to make the situation bearable.
OurEC is a food donation and volunteer platform for people living in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The platform connects individuals who wish to donate food, medication and clothing with underprivileged communities around the province. It does this through what it describes as District Committees (DCs), who are groups of volunteers that represent the different districts in the province. Angolan entrepreneurs led by Julio Chilela of Angola Cables have designed an artificial intelligence application that helps the government track potential COVID-19 cases. They were able to predict close to 85% of new cases in Angola.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) one of the solutions developed is www.stopcoronavirus.cd aimed at raising awareness about COVID-19 in the country. A second application developed by some of our platform volunteers from the DRC is a smartphone application called STOP Coronavirus that offers users tips on how to prevent the virus. In Botswana some of our volunteers were involved in helping build a COVID-19 dashboard for the government, they also built a digital platform for applying for movement permits in the country.
According to Andile, Africans are future proofing the continent from pandemics and other tougher challenges ahead. His vision of an open source driven Africa is clear when one looks at how this platform is actively enabling open source solutions. Another initiatives on the platform is Open Source Africa, a platform aimed at developing the open source ecosystem on the continent. This initiative will help with knowledge sharing, whilst also reducing costs for companies that wish to adopt open source around the continent. The open source initiative will also allow entrepreneurs deploying open source solutions to be more flexible and agile when developing. This initiative will lead to the increased use of OpenStack around the continent for cloud computing. Andile also believes that advocating for more open source projects around the continent will reduce the barriers to entry for young entrepreneurs looking to deploy solutions by using community version of open source technology online. Lastly, Andile believes that open source allows companies to attract more talent, this is because professionals in the technology space can see that is where the industry is headed, so they are embracing it.
Other startups have risen to the occasion, like the online COVID-19 self-assessment chatbot developed by the Nyaho Medical Centre in Ghana in collaboration with ClearSpace Labs on their Serenity health platform. It basically allows you to take a self-assessment at home and also get virtual care so that you only go the hospital if necessary – reducing the pressure on the limited medical facilities to take care of COVID-19 patients.
Given the numerous innovations we were seeing, on May 27th, 2020, Andile and I partnered with Teresa Clarke of Africa.com to host the first Africa online pitch competition under the auspices of “Brilliant African Innovations Against COVID-19”. Through the Angel Fair Africa platform, Africa.com shortlisted six leading African innovations from the KINGS countries to pitch in a virtual environment. Laud Basing of Incas Diagnostics from Ghana who has built a rapid COVID-19 diagnostics kit won the first prize followed by a tie of Mary Mwangi from Data Integrated, Kenya who has built a passenger app for public transport to ensure social distancing, online ticket purchasing, etc. and Dr. Wale Adeosun from Wellvis, Nigeria who built a COVID-19 self-assessment platform with a link to patient care. The other three innovations in the competition were, AfrikanCreate by Aya Dlova from South Africa, Maisoin by Dede Tounkara from Cote d’Ivoire and Epione Health by Jessica Chivinge from South Africa.
All these platforms and applications are being built by young Africans who have taken to digital. It is important to emphasize that Africa has more digital native than any other continent or put differently Africa’s young people present the largest digital demographic dividend of the 21st century. Responding to Rahm Emanuel, they are not wasting the pandemic haven taken the opportunity to do things that were not possible before. Who would have thought that African entrepreneurs whom the odds were stuck against would be starting up the new normal? But as Nelson Mandela once said, “it always seems impossible until it is done”.