Transforming Africa through ICT: Managing crises through technology


We are living in uncertain times, with all types of crises emerging frequently -- from wars to climate change to pandemics. We are currently facing the COVID-19 pandemic, after recently battling with Ebola and the SARS virus. The UN's trade and development agency says the slowdown in the global economy caused by the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to cost at least $1 trillion and the International Monetary Fund has downgraded its global growth estimates. Crises are spreading much faster across countries due to globalisation and therefore, crisis management has become an inevitable responsibility of any government.

The responses adopted by governments around the world to manage the COVID-19 pandemic seem to fall into two main categories: those that adopted technology to fight the pandemic and those that did not. In general, those countries that were able to leverage new and emerging technologies to fight the virus have curbed the number of cases and fatalities more effectively, whilst maintaining operational economies and societies. Many countries that were unable to use technology, however, have had to rely on lockdowns, quarantines, generalised closures, and other physical restrictions.

Emerging technologies and lessons from Asia Some of the emerging technologies that have been adopted by governments to fight the pandemic included drones, big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, mobile technology and others. Most of the countries that have led the innovation and adoption of technology to fight the pandemic are in Asia.

For example, South Korea suffered a significant initial outbreak before successfully fighting COVID-19 through the use of technology. The country adopted widespread testing and then contact tracing such that when an individual tests positive, their movements are monitored through credit card use, security camera footage and mobile phone tracking. People receive text message alerts when new infections emerge in the areas where they live or work.

Singapore has also been able to reach people who could be infected through text messages from the health ministry telling them that they need to be tested and isolated. The government launched a new app for contact-tracing that exchanges Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other users in close proximity. Records of such encounters are stored on each user’s phone. Users who are interviewed by medical authorities as part of contact-tracing efforts can consent to share their data. The app does not collect or use location data and does not access a user’s phone contact list or address book. Importantly, user data is not uploaded to a government server.

Technology is also helping to track the outbreak, clean hospitals, deliver supplies and develop vaccines. In Singapore, robots are delivering meals and medication to patients. In China, robots are disinfecting hospitals, drones are delivering medical supplies and AI is being used to analyse scans to spot the infection. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that humanoid robots can perform routine jobs that otherwise might endanger humans, allowing human medical staff to focus on more complex work whilst limiting the spread of the virus. That’s why Beijing-based robotics company CloudMinds sent 14 robots to Wuhan, China to help with patient care amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Robots have also been deployed to deliver food to people quarantined in hotels. At one such hotel in China, 16 robots (one for each floor) were deployed to help limit cross-contamination. Meanwhile, the delivery app Meituan Dianping launched a “contactless delivery” initiative across China earlier this year and has started using autonomous vehicles to send grocery orders to customers in Shunyi district in Beijing and may also launch similar robot delivery services in other districts in the capital city.

The Chinese technology giant Baidu recently released the industry’s first open-source model to detect whether individuals in crowded areas are wearing face masks. The model boasts a classification accuracy of 97.27 percent. China has also deployed drones to survey the streets looking for those not wearing face masks, and even provides local authorities with multi-person temperature monitoring that can quickly detect people suspected of having a fever, one of the main symptoms of COVID-19.

In South Korea, authorities are tracking potential carriers using cell phone and satellite technology. Vietnam is tracking locals and foreigners through mobile apps, while Thai immigration authorities are using the location data of those arriving in the country. One of the challenges to these technologies is their potential for mass surveillance beyond the initial scope of intent. There are real risks to using personal data without privacy protections firmly in place and enforced.

"To realise these benefits, however, countries must invest in ICT infrastructure, foster innovations and effectively regulate emerging technologies to achieve a balance between collective safety and individual privacy."

Global innovation, local application Big data analytics techniques are being used to track and control the spread of COVID-19 wordwide. The near real-time COVID-19 trackers that continuously pull data from sources around the world are helping healthcare workers, scientists, epidemiologists and policymakers aggregate and synthesise incident data on a global basis. Researchers around the world are also using machine learning to develop models that simulate and predict the spread of the virus in an attempt to identify patterns that might reveal the weaknesses and dangers of this pandemic. Encouragingly, we have not been left behind in Africa. Kenya, Africa’s leader in digital payment adoption, turned to mobile money as a public-health tool. In collaboration with the government, the country’s largest telecommunications company, Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to discourage and reduce the in-person exchange of physical currency.

New business ideas have also emerged as a result of COVID-19, primarily with regard to commuting and medicine. Telecommuting has become the “new normal”, facilitated by virtual platforms. These platforms are also used for sharing cultural and entertainment experiences and for online education. We are also seeing a move towards virtual or digital conferences which is saving organisations both time and resources. Countries that have relied on conference tourism previously will now need to restrategise.

Telecommuting has provided a new way of working with many benefits, including increased productivity, improved morale and quality of work, greater flexibility and better employee retention, amongst others. Online education is another innovation that will revolutionise the education system by disrupting physical classes and enabling students to learn at their own pace in the comfort of their homes. These two innovations may provide the solutions we need to manage traffic and congestion in our African cities. African governments should now be thinking of investing in ICT infrastructure to facilitate wider adoption of these innovations.

Telemedicine is an innovation that is also likely to become more widespread. It enables doctors to work remotely, more efficiently and effectively, and to serve more people. Many medical issues can be resolved without hospitalisation, and many more without a physical exam. By administering care through remote consultation for those less critical patients, we can reserve hospital beds for those who truly need them. Telemedicine is a solution for African countries with inadequate health facilities. Already, Babyl Health Rwanda is providing digital healthcare services including diagnoses of medical conditions without users needing to visit a physical facility. To date, Babyl has two million registered users and has delivered one million consultations.

Another innovation that has been adopted is the use of robots. The Government of Rwanda launched the use of robots to support the fight against Covid 19 and reduce contact between medics and patients. The robots can perform a number of tasks related to Covid 19 management including mass temperature screening, delivering food and medication to patients, capturing data, detecting people who are not wearing masks, amongst other tasks. The robots have the capacity to screen between 50 to 150 people per minute, capture both video and audio data and notify officers on duty about detected abnormalities for a timely response.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for Africa to transform its economies through innovation and ICT, as well as to prepare more effectively for future crises. To realise these benefits, however, countries must invest in ICT infrastructure, foster innovations and effectively regulate emerging technologies to achieve a balance between collective safety and individual privacy.

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Victor Omurunga

Senior Manager, PwC Rwanda

E: T: +250 252 5882 03/04/05/06

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