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Africa’s COVID19 platform for the new normal

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President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel once said “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. It provides the opportunity to do things that were not possible to do before”. When the COVID-19 crisis hit the global north the fear was that it would be most devastating in Africa with Bill Gates predicting that ten million lives would be wiped out by the virus. But he was wrong because African leaders did what was not possible before – they locked down their countries and instituted adherence to the protocols of social distancing and washing of hands. These preventive measures and the sudden change of behavior slowed down the virus’s serious impact in Africa. According to Harvard Health preventing the spread of the virus is rooted in behavioral change. Starting up new behavior in the new normal was what the US and Europe could not do but Africa was able to – in record time and so was Asia. Latin America is facing the consequence of not starting up the new normal.

After a successful digital industry response to COVID-19 project in South Africa, Andile Ngcaba requested an online meeting with a group of African technology entrepreneurs and software engineers to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the African continent. During this online meeting we discussed ways in which we could leverage technology to solve the pandemic across the continent. Andile muted that he is building of an Ubuntu driven Cloud Native Platform that will be host to African Tech Volunteers. The platform will showcase COVID-19 innovations by African entrepreneurs. After this meeting Andile got a group of software engineers together and began building Combat COVID-19 Africa. The platform allows for Africans to combat the pandemic through sharing, collaboration and resource allocation. We continued to have these meetings discussing different functions the platform should have and how it can be adopted all over the continent. The Cloud Native platform uses Kurbenetes as an orchestrator and Tensorflow for the Machine Learning Framework.

The CombatCovid19 Africa (CCA) startup was born through an open participatory process and was later described by the ATU Secretary General Mr. John OMO as a “platform of platforms”. Andile charged the team “we would be flying this aircraft whiles building it” and they launched unto it – working twenty hours a day from March 15th and by the end of April they had a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for use. According to Andile “this is a cloud native platform built on Open Source principles and systems”. It is the birth of Africa’s indigenous knowledge and digital platform with cloud resources, virtual machines and deep learning frameworks. He has emphasized the need for a large open source community in Africa to help drive innovation around the continent. Today the platform is widely adopted with 44 countries and 263 cities on it so we would soon be showcasing Africa’s ingenuity and innovation – celebrating the entrepreneurs and engineers who made this possible in record time. It is an African platform built by African that has gone global virally with no markeing spend or advertising.

Some of the platforms running on the platform are; Covi-ID – a privacy-preserving, open-source platform that uses QR codes to share health credentials from South Africa. Existing track and trace solutions to fight COVID-19 depend critically on widespread adoption of smartphone usage, but 55% of users in Africa do not own a smartphone. Alternative methods to obtain geo-location data, including cell tower triangulation are imprecise and likely to be ineffective so QR codes are one way to go.
AfrikanCreate is a free online volunteer platform for African creatives to share ideas and collaborate on relief projects aimed at addressing COVID-19 challenges. These creative works by volunteers on the platform is used in campaigns to provide messages of hope to affected communities. Echoing messages of encouragement to the people that are working in the front lines of the pandemic. Of course, other people may not be as expressive but do want to share their creative perspective on what is happening around them, this is the platform for that, as long as it raises awareness or education about the pandemic to make the situation bearable.
OurEC is a food donation and volunteer platform for people living in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The platform connects individuals who wish to donate food, medication and clothing with underprivileged communities around the province. It does this through what it describes as District Committees (DCs), who are groups of volunteers that represent the different districts in the province. Angolan entrepreneurs led by Julio Chilela of Angola Cables have designed an artificial intelligence application that helps the government track potential COVID-19 cases. They were able to predict close to 85% of new cases in Angola.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) one of the solutions developed is www.stopcoronavirus.cd aimed at raising awareness about COVID-19 in the country. A second application developed by some of our platform volunteers from the DRC is a smartphone application called STOP Coronavirus that offers users tips on how to prevent the virus. In Botswana some of our volunteers were involved in helping build a COVID-19 dashboard for the government, they also built a digital platform for applying for movement permits in the country.

According to Andile, Africans are future proofing the continent from pandemics and other tougher challenges ahead. His vision of an open source driven Africa is clear when one looks at how this platform is actively enabling open source solutions. Another initiatives on the platform is Open Source Africa, a platform aimed at developing the open source ecosystem on the continent. This initiative will help with knowledge sharing, whilst also reducing costs for companies that wish to adopt open source around the continent. The open source initiative will also allow entrepreneurs deploying open source solutions to be more flexible and agile when developing. This initiative will lead to the increased use of OpenStack around the continent for cloud computing. Andile also believes that advocating for more open source projects around the continent will reduce the barriers to entry for young entrepreneurs looking to deploy solutions by using community version of open source technology online. Lastly, Andile believes that open source allows companies to attract more talent, this is because professionals in the technology space can see that is where the industry is headed, so they are embracing it.

Other startups have risen to the occasion, like the online COVID-19 self-assessment chatbot developed by the Nyaho Medical Centre in Ghana in collaboration with ClearSpace Labs on their Serenity health platform. It basically allows you to take a self-assessment at home and also get virtual care so that you only go the hospital if necessary – reducing the pressure on the limited medical facilities to take care of COVID-19 patients.

Given the numerous innovations we were seeing, on May 27th, 2020, Andile and I partnered with Teresa Clarke of www.africa.com to host the first Africa online pitch competition under the auspices of “Brilliant African Innovations Against COVID-19”. Through the Angel Fair Africa platform, Africa.com shortlisted six leading African innovations from the KINGS countries to pitch in a virtual environment. Laud Basing of Incas Diagnostics from Ghana who has built a rapid COVID-19 diagnostics kit won the first prize followed by a tie of Mary Mwangi from Data Integrated, Kenya who has built a passenger app for public transport to ensure social distancing, online ticket purchasing, etc. and Dr. Wale Adeosun from Wellvis, Nigeria who built a COVID-19 self-assessment platform with a link to patient care. The other three innovations in the competition were, AfrikanCreate by Aya Dlova from South Africa, Maisoin by Dede Tounkara from Cote d’Ivoire and Epione Health by Jessica Chivinge from South Africa.

All these platforms and applications are being built by young Africans who have taken to digital. It is important to emphasize that Africa has more digital native than any other continent or put differently Africa’s young people present the largest digital demographic dividend of the 21st century. Responding to Rahm Emanuel, they are not wasting the pandemic haven taken the opportunity to do things that were not possible before. Who would have thought that African entrepreneurs whom the odds were stuck against would be starting up the new normal? But as Nelson Mandela once said, “it always seems impossible until it is done”.

Africa’s four MEGA TRENDS that are overcoming COVID19

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Africa appears to have narrowly escaped the level of devastation that COVID19 is wrecking in the global north with China as its entry. As if the virus followed the global supply chain to destroy it. The global supply chain links China to the global north before connecting to Africa so by the time the virus got here African leaders shut the boarders – that is the saving grace despite the doom’s day prophecies of Bill Gates. Africa got it right this time around without the help of the western saviors which begs George Ayittey’s famous quote “Africa is poor because she is not free”.

According to the IMF and WorldBank, Africa would experience her first recession in 25 years, but it would not be as severe as the global north. Her recovery in my view could be fast tracked by four MEGA TRENDS that are already in motion before COVID19 ever invaded the continent. The first of these trends has actually gained speed on the back of the virus – digitization. With the lockdowns in Africa many went online (in my previous post I alluded to how we are seeing this in our portfolio companies). Virtualized services are doing very well, while mobility businesses are struggling to keep up. Semi-mobilized businesses that qualify as essential services like food and grocery delivery are going strong. The World Economic Forum has said “Diverse sourcing and digitization will be the key to building stronger, smarter supply chains and ensuring a lasting recovery“.

Digital Innovation
Digital innovative ventures that are software-based (and, in some cases hardware-based) businesses leveraging mobile web technology to solve pain points, fix bottlenecks and address market gaps that make financial returns and, in some cases, impact. The huge investment in telecom infrastructure like submarine and terrestrial fiber cables, satellite stations and mobile/wireless networks all over the continent, has enabled the leveraging of these new technologies. The private sector has predominantly led these investments, while in some cases, public private partnerships (PPPs) have charted the course.

These innovations are permeating all sectors of the economy like financial services, education, agriculture, health and energy creating “new” sectors like Fintech, Edtech, Agtech, Healthtech and Cleantech just to mention a few which make up the digital economy.
• Fintechs are startups using mobile web and internet technology to disrupt the financial services industry, enabling and deepening financial inclusion with mobile money as the basis for electronic transactions like Zeepay, Finaccess, Hubtel, etc;
• Cleantechs are the fusion of off-grid renewable energy generation and mobile web tools which produce a “mobile-sun” disruption that drive means of supplying power like Mkopa Solar, SolarLight, Freedom Won etc;
• Edtechs are online platforms that make learning available, interactive and fun, breaking down traditional barriers and transforming education like eCampus, Eneza, Imano etc;
• Healthtechs are scaleups developing technologies that make access and delivery of health services available through teleconsulting and telemedicine technologies like CombatCovid-19 Africa, Serenity Health, Talamus, Helium Health etc; and
• Agtechs go beyond access to weather information and market prices provided by startups like Farmerline to those that disrupt and create value within the agriculture ecosystem like Complete Farmer, etc.
For a long time, Africa has arguably leapfrogged the west in terms of telecom infrastructure. Building on this, we can leapfrog our counterparts abroad in terms of business models that make both fiscal and impact returns. Hubtel is an example of such business that is profitable and Zulzi who just raised $2.6M in the midst of the pandemic have become a moment to treasure. Africa’s digitizing economy can make real the concept of People, Planet and Profit rising together interdependently. Below is a picture of global tech giants who have visited Africa because of the digital innovation – before the lockdown began, Jack Dorsey of Twitter said he planned to come live in Africa for three months in 2020.

Courtesy of MAX CUVELLIER

Entrepreneurial Youth
These entrepreneurial ventures arise out of Africa’s youthful brain trust. Just a generation ago, starting a business in Africa was not the “in” thing, but we are now in the midst of a paradigm shift – it is cool to be a tech entrepreneur. This is the result of the world’s youngest population expressing itself through the availability of mobile web technology. Most of these young entrepreneurs believe in themselves and their ability to create the next Facebook or Google out of Africa. They argue that if Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates can do it without college degrees, they are no less. This phenomenon of self-discovery, identification with web technology and expression through entrepreneurship is powering the digital renaissance that is changing the narrative led by the youthful population of Africa.

Almost 60% of Africa’s population in 2019 is under the age of 25, making Africa the world’s youngest continent. According to the UN’s demographic projections, the median age in Africa is going to be 19.8 in 2020. And Africa’s population is going to double by 2050. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation titled their 2019 report “Africa’s first challenge in this regard is the youth bulge currently stuck in ‘waithood’. I come from the school of thought that whiles some are waiting, the others are busy building entrepreneurial ventures. In my view that is the only way out because those ventures would in turn hire the rest of the youth who are not entrepreneurial. Therefore, African policy makers need to wake up to the realization that they must create an environment that cultivates more entrepreneurial ventures. That would in turn solve the unemployment predicament we have on the continent. The way to solve unemployment is to enable new businesses that would scale by employing more hands. There is arguably no continent more entrepreneurial than Africa, where we have had to innovate solutions to overcome the export of our resources elsewhere. By making Africa a digital technology powerhouse, we will re-center our resources, and talent here, so that our tide of innovation can raise all boats.

Common Market
The common market came into effect last year when the 54 African states signed the protocol after many years of discussion – this could not be more timely. The IMF estimate puts the common market in Africa at four trillion dollars, so this is a big enough market for these entrepreneurial ventures according to the WEF. The first generation of these ventures have started scaling into multiple markets so are already leveraging the common market that has been created. These ventures are actually acting as the proof point for the common market phenomenon in Africa. As the continent opens up more and more, African multinational businesses would be created through intra-Africa trade and development.

The doubling of Africa’s population by 2050 would most likely double the four trillion dollar common market. This means that more global businesses would be coming into Africa to leverage the market. They would create jobs and add value to raw materials because labor is cheaper and available in Africa. The youthful population would be supplying that needed labor in all sectors — especially technology. This means that we need to be creating the educational opportunities that the youth need to enhance their skills. Guess what – that can now be done online. Harvard is offering fifty-seven free online courses during the pandemic. Many local and international educational institutions are moving their classrooms online, so distance is no longer a barrier to education. eCampus is experiencing exponential growth due to the demand.

Returning Diaspora
The phenomenal success of Ghana’s Year of Return initiative is a result of succeeding initiatives like Panafest, Joseph Project, etc., which were all aimed at getting people of African descent to return home. December 2019 was the climax of this movement which saw 1.5 million people of African descent from the US, Europe and Asia coming to Accra. Racial injustice in the US has led to movements like #BlackLivesMatter resulting in more and more African Americans relocating to Africa. Ghana has actually become the preferred destination because of — among other reasons — the setup of the Diaspora African Forum (DAF). DAF is recognized by the African Union and has worked with the Ghana government to secure citizenship for a lot of the returning diaspora.

Marcus Garvey in 1914 started pushing people of color to connect to their roots – he envisioned an African nation through the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey is known for saying “Our success educationally, industrially and politically is based upon the protection of a nation founded by ourselves. And the nation can be nowhere else but in Africa.” Bob Marley who was inspired by Garvey pushed the message in his songs. He personally came to Africa first to visit Ethiopia and Kenya then again in 1980 to visit Gabon by way of his love affair with Pascaline Bongo and then played at the Independence Day of Zimbabwe – paying his own way for the trip. Rita Marley later moved the entire Marley family to Ghana in 2000 making their abode in the mountains of Aburi overlooking Accra. W.E.B DuBois moved to Ghana in 1961 at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah, where we lived until his death – that history resonates deeply with many African Americans seeking a society that embraces them, rather than treating them as second-class citizens.

Rabbi Kohain Halevi, owner of Mabel’s table guesthouse and restaurant, has lived in Ghana for 25 years. “I was 33 years old in 1987 when I fell in love with Ghana,” said Halevi, 65. “It took me seven years and 13 trips before I could finally move to Ghana and make this my home.” Dr. Marcus Manns moved to Ghana in June 2000 to start his chiropractic and wellness center which is now a successful business and in the process met his wife – they now live between Accra and the US with their five kids. Muhammida el-Muhajir says as an African American in the US, she felt she could ‘never win’ so she relocated to Ghana to setup her business WaxPrint Media which is thriving. Voltaire Xodus moved to Ghana without first visiting to launch his startup, WeUp, because according to him it is peaceful. His sister Ramona, who is a co-founder, has since joined him in Accra. 28-year-old Deijha Gordon left her family in Brooklyn, New York to start a food truck business in Ghana after visiting for the year of return. Ingrid LaFleur who ones run for the mayor of Detroit could not return after her “Year of Return” visit. She has gone on to launch The Afrofuture Strategies Institute (TASI) with a triangulated location in Accra, Kigali and Johannesburg. Derrick Ashong and Lucia Brawley, co-founders of Amp Global Technologies, moved from Los Angeles to Mauritius to launch The Mic: Africa, the first multi-platform TV format created in Africa to be exported around the world, all powered by their Take Back The Mic (TBTM) app.

In conclusion, COVID19 has generated an unintended consequence of speeding up the digital innovation in Africa led by the youthful population with the common market as their reach and the returning diaspora as the icing on the cake – welcome to the new normal.

COVID-19 is SPEEDING up the digital economy in Africa

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Introduction
When I postulated the digital economy in Africa in 2013 as a precursor to becoming a fulltime angel investor and subsequently writing about its KINGS in 2016, it never crossed my mind that in 2020 COVID-19 would be the SPEEDING agent. Who could have predicted COVID-19 except Bill Gates who alluded to a viral outbreak in his 2015 TED talk whiles George Bush and Barack Obama were more accurate in prospecting 2020 as the year? However, none of them envisaged the extent of this epidemic which has pretty much collapsed the capital markets and slowed down the economies of many countries with many of us at home – literally trying to survive the pandemic.

Policy action
African leaders took the major decision to declare a lockdown and, in some cases, daily curfews for fear of the virus spreading and overwhelming the (in some cases non-existent) healthcare systems. While those decisions have being contested in some cases on the basis that the informal sectors of our economies (that earn a daily wage) are going to suffer the most, the bright side of that decision is the need to go online while in self quarantine. The need to go online was helped by the rapid adoption of smart phones in Africa as a result of the reduction in price and supply of handsets some of which are being locally assembled and manufactured by the like of Mara Phones, etc.

Bandwidth
My friend Ben Roberts, Chief Technology and Information Office (CTIO) of Liquid Telecom asked in his article last week “Did corona just kickstart the digital economy in Africa?” – my answer is NO because the digital economy has been in Africa but YES, it is being speeded up in ways that no one would have thought off before. The premise of Ben’s article is the sudden growth in bandwidth that he can see on their network from March 15th, 2020 when these lockdowns came into effect. People are home so off course they would have to commute virtually and so suddenly they would have to purchase more bandwidth. This is helped by the reduction in bandwidth price as a result of the huge investments made by the fiber and satellite providers (FSPs), mobile network operators (MNOs) and internet service providers (ISPs) over the last decade. Some of these operators recently moved to uncapping the provision of broadband and in some cases removing the expiration of prepaid broadband purchase. With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that the operators got the lockdown memo… – maybe Kenya greenlighting Google loom for 4G was it?

Digital Media
Around the world we’ve seen an overnight spike in Digital Media consumption, which offers a variety of opportunities in the African context. One of our portfolio companies, AMP Global Technologies, is leveraging an original interactive TV series, called The Mic: Africa, as a gateway to the internet for African youth. They are partnering with telcos and other brands to reward audiences by subsidizing discounted smart phones, zero-rating content, and offering data packages to the most active fans. With improved affordability of 4G mobile connectivity , young Africans can better access established platforms like Facebook, and Google, while also leveraging homegrown technology solutions to gain computer literacy, financial literacy, creative resources and critical public health information. In response to the crisis, the company has shifted the season finale of The Mic: Africa to make it a fundraiser for UN-designated public health organizations offering on-the-ground relief for the Covid-19 crisis.

Mobile Money
In late 2007/8 I was in Kenya working with some colleagues to launch The East African Marine System (TEAMS) when in December the election violence pushed us to the curb but like now one of the unintended consequences of that outbreak was the rapid adoption of Mpesa – a mobile money (MOMO) service that was introduced by Safaricom an MNO. Suddenly everyone in Kenya was transacting using Mpesa because not only was cash not available but mobility was restricted. Fast forward to COVID-19 in 2020 we are all on lockdown so access to cash is limited since mobility is restricted so guess what’s happening on the mobile operator’s networks – a surge in MOMO adoption and use.

Evidence
My personal experience happened yesterday, I needed to get some groceries from the convenience store in my neighborhood and for the first time I was able to pay with MOMO. Two years ago, the same store demanded that I go withdraw the money from a MOMO agent and come pay with cash for my groceries. While time may account for the change in mindset, coupled with the current situation where people have limited access to cash, the store has no choice than to accept MOMO. I noted in my exchanges with the store owner last night that they even take visa and master card on the point of sale (POS) they have installed – suddenly my local convenience store has gone digital and so is the case in other parts of the continent.

E-commerce
The next step for them is to get their inventory online so I can go online order and have them deliver it to my home (which in this case is walking distance) – that makes them a full fledge e-commerce business. Of course I recommended Hubtel to them to use for their online store because it is one of our portfolio companies and their demand is going through the roof due to COVID-19.

With bandwidth and digital payment sorted, lots of small businesses are going online enabling an escalation of e-commence in ways that were not envisaged before. Even though Jumia’s shares are plummeting with the hit taken by the capital markets, grocery delivery companies like Zulzi are experiencing an escalation of demand for their services to the extent that last week they employed one hundred new shoppers and delivery agents in South Africa. Companies like Sokowatch who just raised $14M and COPIA Global who raised $26M last year are all seeing demand on their network.

Online learning
On Tuesday March 17th 2020 Ghana’s Minister of Education announced at a press conference that students who are home can use online learning platforms like eCampus – a portfolio company – their traffic went through the roof. Since then the use of the platform has being on the rise necessitating a ramp up in resources and investment for a startup that has struggled to gain traction. Earlier in the year, we partnered with the African Business Centre for Developing Education (ABCDE) led by former Minister of Education, Dr. Ekwow Spio-Garbrah supported by Vivo Energy Ghana to commence a nationwide e-learning programme aimed at encouraging students in second cycle institutions to explore e-learning options to augment the traditional classroom and textbook learning. As if we knew COVID-19 would necessitate an adoption of our platform nationwide as is the case with other platforms worldwide.

Online Assessment
Nyaho Medical Centre the leading private hospital in Ghana (on whose board I serve) moved quickly to establish protocols to screen patients who visit the facility for COVID-19 so they can isolate, test and treat them before local transmission kicks in. While that has been very successful, the on-going fear has been the facility being overwhelmed by imported cases even if we could curb local transmission. Our two year partnership with Clear Space Labs to build Serenity – our digital health platform came in handy as our team launched the Serenity COVID-19 online self-assessment chatbot that allows one to take an assessment from home before proceeding to a medical facility if necessary. The uptake has been overwhelming and so is the momentum of the community of African entrepreneurs and technologist who are building a collaboration platform to Combat Covid-19 in Africa.

Is increased disruption a positive consequence?
This morning I jumped on a catch-up call with my friend and fellow investor Ravinder Sikand of Energy Access Ventures and we discussed some of the elements above and then we came to the crucial question “what do you think is going to change post the epidemic?” In addition to the increased digitization discussed above, he is of the view increased disruption of production would also pickup. This has been seen with the delivery of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as well as increased recognition for home grown innovation and cooperation. Some examples include, Kenyan university designed ventilator for local conditions or the Safe Hands program launched by a number of Kenyan corporates. To continue riding this wave, policy is needed to increase competitiveness coupled with more recent technology developments like 3D printing and distributed energy will impact the way we develop and implement outcomes that are less susceptible to supply chain shocks. The three trillion common market in Africa created by the African Continent Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) could not be more timely for the distribution of these disruptions.