Dealing with the health and economic challenges of COVID-19 has made one point abundantly clear for African countries – “that we need broadband, faster, cheaper, and expanded to the last mile of our populations.”
UN Under Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), Ms. Vera Songwe, echoed this point during a virtual high-level policy dialogue on ‘leveraging technology in assisting African countries in the fight against COVID-19’.
Organized in collaboration with Ant Financial Services of the Alibaba Group, the livestreamed event brought together leaders of the Asian tech giant, some African ministers of technology and telecommunication, private sector actors across the continent and innovation/digital economy activists who agreed that technology is a common denominator in mitigating the impact of the pandemic, restoring livelihoods and tackling similar challenges in the future.
“It is clear that the novel coronavirus has led to physical confinement in many parts of the world but enterprises which leverage the power of digital and innovative technologies continue doing business, in fact – even more business as Ant Financial has demonstrated in offering financial solutions to 10 million additional customers in the midst of the crisis,” she said.
Ant Financial’s representatives explained that they have so far used digital technology to help businesses boost online trade, build intelligent networks to support agriculture and food chain delivery, practice online medical consultations, carry out online job search and provide contactless loans to Small and Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs).
“We believe that leveraging digital transformation during this crisis will save lives and jobs especially in tourism and related services,” said Mr. Eric Jing, Executive Chairman of Ant Financial and Member of the Advisory Board to ECA’s Digital Centre of Excellence, adding that thanks to the power of technology, “the world will emerge stronger, working together.”
Both Mr. Moustapha Diaby – Minister of Digital Economy, Post and Telecommunications of Guinea and Ms. Cina Lawson – Minister of Digital Economy of Togo, agreed that COVID-19 was a clarion call for Africa to prioritize digital connectivity and governance.
Minister Diaby, for instance, said tracing the spread of COVID-19 in order to flatten the curve in Guinea has proved difficult in the absence of a digital identification system.
But to use the resources at hand efficiently, his country’s Government is capitalizing on bulk SMS messaging and the use of mobile telephony networks to push public service announcements via ring tones in the major languages of the country.
Tech activist and CEO of AppsTech Inc., Ms. Rebecca Enonchong from Cameroon, re-echoed the case for “low tech solutions such as USSD and the SMS which don’t require smartphones” as well as governments’ intervention to reduce the cost of broadband urgently.
She regretted that the big online traffic and hosting platforms such as Google (for Google Play) and Apple (providing Apple Store) have curtailed the ability for African developers to showcase groundbreaking solutions that they have nurtured in the effort to tackle the pandemic.
In view of these, panelists emphasized the need for African governments, in synergy with the private sector and civil society, to collaborate on aggregating solutions and avoiding duplication of efforts to fight against COVID-19.
Ms. Amel Saidane, President of Tunisia Startups, explained that her country’s government was already taking that route and has sought for a North Africa regional collaborative platform to pool together the flood of ideas and solutions from public-private partnerships.
The dialogue ended with a general agreement on the need to quickly set up a collaborative platform for immediately helping businesses to sell African products on and beyond the continent in this time of crisis.
The panelists agreed to reconvene quickly to act on these recommendations.