By March 19, 2020

How The African Tech Community Is Adjusting To COVID-19 And Rising To The Challenge

By March 19, 2020

It’s the year 2020 and terms like ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-quarantine’ are now part of everyday lingo. 

We’re only three months into the new decade (the ‘decade’ part actually depends on who you ask), and over 9,000 lives have been lost to the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) sweeping through every part of the globe.

There are now 220,000+ cases worldwide and even though some 85,000+ people have managed to recover from the highly contagious COVID-19, there’s a feeling that the worst is yet to come.

That’s especially true for parts of the least-affected continent, Africa, where cases are starting to spike, even though at first there were misguided claims that the virus only has a thing for people with very little melanin.

With nearly 600 cases recorded in Africa so far and several fatalities recorded even among locals, several African nations have awakened to the realities and containment measures are being adopted. 

*Africa’s COVID-19 data as of 15:30 WAT on 18/03/2020

Various African countries have announced international travel bans, outlawed public gatherings, and shut down schools since threat levels rose. And the African tech community has had to make some adjustments too while taking on the challenge.

As a COVID-19-enforced global shutdown continues to take centre stage, here’s a look at how Africa’s most active tech communities are adjusting to the changes and rising to a global challenge that is changing the way people work and interact.

Nigeria

Nigeria now has 8 confirmed COVID-19 cases and the government has placed travel restrictions on 13 high-risk countries while discouraging social gatherings and directing schools to close down for a month as from Friday, March 20.

The Nigerian tech community has responded in several ways. IrokoTV, BuyCoins, Paystack, Carbon, are some of the startups that have activated full work-from-home policies. The likes of Andela and Flutterwave have also implemented remote working policies for their employees in all their locations.

Senior Manager, Marketing and Communications for Andela, Oluwashola Obagbemi, told WeeTracker that Andela is taking the threat very seriously.

“Andela is taking the challenges that coronavirus presents us with, extremely seriously,” she said. “In terms of global company policies, we have paused all travel for now and are closely monitoring the outbreak globally and in the countries, we operate. We have also instituted mandatory remote work policies in some offices.”

She added, “We have a work-from-home policy and most of our employees across Andela locations have the flexibility to work from home, more so during this period. We continue to keep our teams updated with relevant information to ensure their health and safety, and we are also refreshing our existing Work From Home policies to guide our business operations and delivery.”

On their part, Flutterwave said it is taking the necessary safety precautions. In response to our queries, Flutterwave said they ran a company-wide global remote day pilot last week before the significant evolution of the virus.

“All employees across our offices are encouraged to take advantage of our work from home policies if they feel or have family members exhibiting symptoms while also practicing social distancing,” reiterated Yewande Akomolafe-Kalu of Flutterwave.

“To make employee’s work-from-home conditions in locations with unstable power more comfortable, we have provided additional resources to help alleviate this. We are also working in partnership with hubs and co-working spaces to provide our employees with hot desks so they don’t have to commute to find a location to work if the need arises,” she added.

Kenya

Kenya announced its first COVID-19 case last Friday and that number has since risen to seven. President Uhuru Kenyatta has since placed restrictions on international travels and suspended gatherings as part of social distancing efforts.

Plus, following his recommendations, the world’s leading mobile money destination is about to take both first and second place on the leaderboard. 

Since President Kenyatta urged the country to minimise contact with cash so as to check the spread of the virus (though this may not be much of a fix), mobile money platforms like M-PESA and Airtel Money, as well as banks, have waived certain transaction fees.

Besides that, some companies operating out of Kenya have taken steps. It is understood that Transsion has a half-done work-from-home policy for its Chinese staff only. Microsoft’s Kenyan office has asked its staff to work from home. Plus, a startup known as Soko, which makes jewelry, has asked all its non-essential staff not to come to work.

Michael Kimani, Head of Business Development East Africa for global fintech company, Zippie, told WeeTracker that Zippie’s COVID-19 guidelines are about minimizing travel and having online meetings instead.

According to him, other guidelines include “sharing our work as much as possible so that if someone feels sick, others can help with the tasks, washing hands frequently, not touching your face, and avoiding big crowds.”

Jessica Hope, the founder of WimbartPR, a boutique PR agency specialising in African tech startups, said the team is working from home and making it work.

“The personal health of the team is the priority, which is why we took the decision to work from home as of Tuesday,” she said. 

“We have a popping WhatsApp group, and we all live on Slack anyway – so we are trying to replicate the energy there, whilst supporting each other through this period. 

“And for Wimbart clients, they definitely won’t notice any change in service levels – they just won’t see the famous Wimbart sign in the background when we have our calls with them.”

South Africa

Following the events of this past Sunday which saw President Cyril Ramaphosa declare COVID-19 as a state of emergency, some of the startups in South Africa have made changes.

With 150 confirmed cases as at press time, South Africa has the second-highest COVID-19 cases in Africa. And SA’s tech startups are responding to the threat of the coronavirus by putting in place austerity measures and devising new innovative solutions for customers.

As reported by Ventureburn, some tech startups in SA have already taken measures such as halting international travel and requesting that team members work from home.

Entersekt, a Cape Town-based tech company, had taken a decision in the first week of March to stop all but the most essential international travel and have asked that employees returning from trips to self-isolate for two weeks as standard practice.

Additionally, investment company, Silvertree Holdings, reportedly had its investment team spend last week and the weekend planning and drafting COVID-19 action plans to be deployed across its investment portfolio, which consists mainly of a number of e-commerce businesses in South Africa.

Perhaps the worst hit of the bunch is the events ticketing platform, Quicket, which expects President Ramaphosa’s ban on gatherings of over 100 people to crush its revenue. 

Still, Quicket’s team members are working from separate locations as the startup seems committed to putting people before profits. Currently, they are looking at ways to help event organisers to transform their events.

Ideas such as moving events online, and running webinars, fundraisers, merchandise sales, tournaments, and other events over the internet are some of the ways the startup hopes to sustain the business of events organisers, and by extension, their own.

In some countries in North Africa including Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, several tech startups have known to have canceled meetups, suspended travels, and have taken to working from home.

However, it’s not entirely a “run-away-to-fight-another-day” policy for the African tech community. As a matter of fact, there are efforts being made to come up with tech interventions and tools that can help in the fight against COVID-19.

Rising To The COVID-19 Challenge

Since the COVID-19 threat became ‘real’, the African tech community has started drumming up both financial and structural support for tech projects related to tackling COVID-19.

Both VC fund, Ventures Platform, and one of the innovation incubators in Africa, CcHub, have announced separate efforts, offering both funding and mentorship to tech founders, developers, designers, and enthusiasts who have ideas/projects that can aid the COVID-19 war.

And some tech solutions are starting to pop up. We spoke to some members of the African tech community whose projects look promising and they shared how their work can help/is helping in the fight against the pandemic.

  • InStrat’s COVID-19 App

Okey Okuzu who leads InStrat Global Health Solutions said his firm has developed and now deployed a COVID-19 app to directly provide health workers accurate information about the Novel CoronaVirus Disease (COVID).

As he told WeeTracker, the app enables front-line health workers, epidemic response officers, strategic personnel to better identify, screen and manage persons who may be suspected carriers of COVID-19. It also helps health workers to notify authorities of positive screens to help minimize the potential of spreading.

“The COVID App rapid deployment approach is via SMS or WhatsApp and as such we can deploy it to any health worker or instantly.  Also, the App is designed to automatically update its content as new information or protocols emerge,” said Okuzu.

He told us that on February 28, InStrat deployed the COVID-19 app to all 21 Public Health Centres (PHC) in Ewekoro, Ogun State, Nigeria, to help with surveillance to catch community spread. On March 16, it was extended to 250 PHCs in Ogun State after some upgrades on the app.

Okuzu gives credit to the Dapo Abiodun Administration of Ogun State and the Commissioner for Health, Dr. Tomi Coker, for their support and for being the first to deploy the app. InStrat is also looking to take it national.

  • iQube Labs’ MyServiceAgent

Mayowa Ayodeji and the team at iQube Labs, a computer science R&D company, have developed MyServiceAgent.

Their product is a tech solution that can help the health authorities to effectively entertain inquiries about the pandemic and respond to calls for tests.

“We understand that they are struggling with hundreds (if not thousands) of calls a day round the clock, Ayodeji told us. 

“Here, we saw that our product MyServiceAgent can be set up for Nigerians to call the NCDC anytime and get good feedback. This will lift the human capital burden for their call centre and the software will also harvest, store and present the data for NCDC to act on.”

As he further revealed, “This week, we started designing the menus to cater for all possible call scenarios the NCDC may need to attend to. We will have a working menu that we will be presenting to the stakeholders for approval so that we can go live and support our government’s effort to contain and combat COVID-19.”

Describing how MyServiceAgent works, Ayodeji said people get to call a designated number or click on a link that they will provide to make an internet-based call (like a WhatsApp) to the health authorities. Then, the system (MyServiceAgent) responds giving them the information they requested.

This it does by sending their queries to the appropriate departments of the agency responsible for disease control and giving them all necessary advice unique to their call. 

“This service will be able to communicate with hundreds of callers simultaneously and intelligently. We had Nigerian businesses in mind when we started building this solution, then COVID-19 came. We are always ready and willing to support our country to provide quality life to the citizens, so why not,” he remarked.

  • The Coronavirus Daily Update Mobile App

Mohammed Odunayo, who describes himself as an “Expert Level Full Stack Developer with over 7 years of experience,” claims to have developed a coronavirus daily updates mobile app as a humanitarian act to the world and not just Nigeria.

According to him, the app is focused on getting valid and proven information across to users as soon as possible.

“The application stands to reduce the spread of fake and unhealthy news, which may result in making the people panic, which, in turn, can worsen the already existing case,” he said.

The application includes sections for fatality rates (Sex- and Age-group-based), as well as a section for the Incubation Period of the virus and its signs.

As he told WeeTracker, expert opinions from around the world on what COVID-19 is and what it’s not is also available on the app.

He claims that every piece of information on the application is sourced directly from WorldOMeter which sources its information from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and numerous top healthcare organisations around the world and in China.

Odunayo, who said he built the app all by himself in less than a week, also revealed that he has created an API that will later be made public for developers like himself who are ready to feed off of this same dataset and create solutions through it all for free.

Featured Image Courtesy: VietnamTimes

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