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Nelson Mandela Capture Site, Howick, South Africa — Photo by @randomlies

The Coronavirus and African Digital Infrastructure

A consideration of the digital and the pandemic in the African region

DataSeries highlight:

  • As COVID-19 spread across the world it is beginning to hit the African region. How can we consider the digital infrastructure in the emerging issues and how is the technology community responding?

Firstly it would be important to state that I have never been to Africa, and that my knowledge several topics in this article is severely limited. When reading this article you must consider it as curiosity and a wish to understand different situations around the world relating to the spread of the Coronavirus. Lockdowns have been enacted by states around the world and citizens have been asked to stay at home with the various consequences it has had for both livelihoods and lives. From an apartment in Norway following the news it all seems strange — and at the same time inspiring seeing how people take actions to address the arising issues.

I covered the ideas by a few policy-makers in India regarding the digital infrastructure this week.

Prior to this I have been writing policy summaries of national strategies regarding artificial intelligence.

As well as a summary of AI in South Africa.

My interest in technology policy is due to the human aspects that are influenced and for the environment.

Currently there is a rapid change ongoing with the wish to address this epidemic and part of the outlined solutions has to do with technological infrastructure.

I will briefly attempt to explore these three topics starting with the Coronavirus in Africa.

The Coronavirus in Africa April 2020

According to a recent article by the BBC on the 17th of April they give the following picture:

“UN officials also say it is likely the pandemic will kill at least 300,000 people in Africa and push nearly 30 million into poverty. The past week in Africa has seen a sharp rise in coronavirus cases. There have been almost 1,000 deaths and almost 19,000 infections across Africa, so far much lower rates than in parts of Europe and the US. The UN Economic Commission for Africa — which warned 300,000 could die — called for a $100bn (£80bn) safety net for the continent, including halting external debt payments. The WHO says the virus appears to be spreading away from African capitals. It has also highlighted that the continent lacks ventilators to deal with a pandemic. More than a third of Africa’s population lacks access to adequate water supplies and nearly 60% of urban dwellers live in overcrowded slums — conditions where the virus could thrive.”

According to WHO two days ago when the article was written the virus had spread to 15 countries so far. There is an estimated 1.3 billion people in Africa and WHO expects that within 3–6 months 10 million could be infected.

“The WHO says there are only around five intensive care beds available for every one million people in most African countries, compared with around 4,000 beds for every million people in Europe.” — BBC 17th of April

BBC in a different article on the 15th of April published a stat by WHO on the rising confirmed cases in Africa.

In the same article BBC describes that lockdown might not be an option in all cases, particularly when the people who go into lockdown have no other option:

“An even bigger challenge will be keeping economies functional and stopping a slide into destitution and hunger.”

African digital infrastructure

The draft Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020–2030) (DTS) is a document that is being written by the African Union. According to this strategy referring to (We Are Social. Hootsuite. Digital 2019) it is said:

“Internet penetration in Africa is estimated to be 36% or 473 million people online. Despite the current infrastructure challenges an additional 300 million people are expected to come online by 2025.”

In this strategy they also argue for an expansion of current data centres.

“Currently, a very large part of the IT content consumed in Africa comes from outside and Data Centers are the digital infrastructure that will allow the development of a local digital industry. Therefore, Africa needs Tier III and Tier IV Data Center Infrastructure designed to host mission critical servers and computer systems, with fully redundant subsystems.”

This is also part of their policy recommendations.

A large part of the digital infrastructure in Africa at least on the side felt by citizens is smartphones.

Smartphones with advanced analytics is becoming part of the negating the spread of the Coronavirus in several countries through apps and understanding how contact has been happening in networks.

The lockdown is having an effect on this digital infrastructure on-the-ground as there will likely be a disruption in the sale of smartphones at least according to Financial Times:

Most of the shipments of phones to Africa is from the Asian market with China in particular according to Quartz Africa’s article published on the 19th of March:

“Smartphone shipments were led by Shenzhen, China maker, Transsion, which has three brands (Tecno, Infinix and iTel) which combined had a 40.6% market share while Samsung came in second with 18.6% and Huawei with 9.8%. Transsion’s brands completely dominate the feature phone segment with 69.5% while HMD (Nokia) has 10.2%.”

With the current spread and the lockdown in South Africa as an example the measures are being described as a ‘death trap’ by Isaac Mugabi writing for DW on the 26th of March 2020.

The spread of the disease is adversely affecting students who have no access to Interet, as they are unable to access education.

There is a new digital legislature being developed in parts of South Africa is ongoing. Gauteng Provincial Legislature has released some plans, although it is not detailed in this article what that would entail.

There will likely be many responses in regards to tech policy in the coming year, however it remains to be seen how that will play out.

The response by the tech community

There has been a response by the technology community in Africa according to an article in TechCrunch. I have taken a few, yet I would recommend that you read the full article published in April.

  • “Kenya, Africa’s leader in digital payment adoption, turned to mobile money as a public-health tool.
  • Safaricom, implemented a fee-waiver on East Africa’s leading mobile-money product, M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency. The company announced that all person-to-person (P2P) transactions under 1,000 Kenyan Schillings (≈ $10) would be free for three months.
  • Ghana’s monetary body also eased KYC requirements on mobile-money, allowing citizens to use existing mobile phone registrations to open accounts with the major digital payment providers, according to a March 18 Bank of Ghana release.
  • In South Africa, small-business payments startup Yoco issued a directive to clients to encourage customers to use the contactless payment option on its point of sale machines. The startup has also accelerated development of a remote payment product, that would enable transfers on its client network via a weblink.
  • Cape Town based crowdsolving startup Zindi — that uses AI and machine learning to tackle complex problems — opened a challenge to the 12,000 registered engineers on its platform. The competition, sponsored by AI4D, tasks scientists to create models that can use data to predict the global spread of COVID-19 over the next three months. The challenge is open until April 19, solutions will be evaluated against future numbers and the winner will receive $5,000.
  • Growth in COVID-19 cases in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 200 million, prompted one of the country’s largest digital payments startups to act.”

Elsewhere in the world companies or countries have been starting to develop their own applications to track how the disease moves, and it is not unlikely this will be done in the African region either.

A South African company is attempting to build an app for tracking and will likely be launched in the coming week (21st of April 2020).

“A team of academics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa is developing a blockchain-powered application that will allow users to verify their own COVID-19 status. The platform, named Covi-ID, is still under development but aims to address a number of pressing concerns around the global coronavirus pandemic.”

Summing up

When lockdown have been happening large systems have had to shift almost over night to different ways of doing things. Many educational systems have have to completely change the way they teach; markets have had to close; people have had to go home; many have lost their jobs; and the Coronavirus has only recently arrived to the African region. Technology policy may be very important in the coming time to assist in addressing the issues, yet must be considered as part of an overall strategy with health efforts being more or equally important in this regard. The digital infrastructure is different than elsewhere and concerns in addressing the virus must be considered in this regard.

I hope this article was helpful to some degree.

This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 320. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days. My focus for day 300–400 is about AI, hardware and the climate crisis



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Alex Moltzau

Alex Moltzau


AI Policy and Ethics at Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own.