COVID-19 crisis: What Africa must do to bridge digital divide and usher in economic renewal

Innovation and technology has enabled us to continue working during the pandemic and its use will increase when it ends

15 May 2020 . 10,327 Views

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the world on its head. No part of our lives has been left untouched by the global disruption. Children are out of school. Manufacturing firms have fallen silent. People are out of jobs in the millions, and more are joining them every day. The best healthcare systems in the world are overwhelmed, scientists are trying to understand the virus and find a vaccine.

The worrying part for everyone is that there’s no end in sight. For now, no one knows when the world will be able to halt the downward spiral. What’s left for us to do is to adapt. We urgently need to reinvent our approaches to life in order to face the new circumstances successfully.

We must be innovative in our support to people and communities so that we can all get through this crisis. But we must also appreciate a few facts. Had this pandemic happened 30 years ago, the world would have been worse off without all the innovation that has emerged, especially in telecommunications.

Technological innovators have built vast capabilities that are, in my view, assisting in limiting the spread and impact of the crisis.

Information from one site can today be gathered, analyzed, and shared by scientists, health experts, and policymakers around the globe at the speed of light. But only one half of the world is enjoying the dividend from these innovations. This makes for disturbing reading on the wide gap that exists between the digital haves and digital have nots.

According to UNESCO data, only 55% of households globally are connected to the Internet.

Mobile internet

GSMA, the industry organization that represent the interests of mobile network operators globally, notes that the mobile internet adoption currently stands at an average of 24% in Sub-Saharan Africa. The region also accounts for 40% of the global population not covered by a mobile broadband network.

This data is in a day and age when the Internet is the answer to many coronavirus lock-down problems. Today, billions are using the Internet to learn more about COVID-19, schools are setting coursework online, and millions around the world are working from home.

I’m keenly aware that millions of children in Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa have no access to the technological advancements that their age mates in developed nations and minority portions of our populations enjoy. Online learning for these children is only a remote possibility. They can only access learning from less interactive channels such as SMS, radio, and in even lesser cases, TV.

Cloud storage

Technology is proving to be effective in aiding the education sector. Cloud storage has made it easier for students to access research materials compared to going through piles of books for their assignments.

I see future opportunities with our universities and other higher learning Institutions, partnering with technology firms to create solutions for eLearning, helping them reduce costs of setting up campuses across the country and increasing the level of education in the country.

In medicine, numerous hospitals in and out of capital cities in sub-Saharan Africa are also ill-equipped to handle even common ailments. The ones in deep rural areas or remote regions tend to be less resourced and less equipped.

Today, our doctors in Nairobi are holding 4G-enabled video conferences with their counterparts abroad, sharing best practices on how to deal with the Coronavirus and sharing knowledge across the country. Telemedicine needs to become the new normal.

Of course, when the world gets around the crisis, one of the next significant challenges is likely to be food insecurity. We are already witnessing a disruptive phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa with the floods and locusts visiting havoc across nations.

I was raised in rural Kenya in a region of fertile farmlands. I am passionate about food security, and I am glad to see technology aiding in scaling agriculture capabilities, especially for smallholders’ farmers like my parents.

I see more opportunities to harness the power of mobile technology to scale these opportunities we have in agriculture by leveraging them to reduce the negative impact of erratic weather.

Mr. Ndegwa is the CEO, Safaricom

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