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Pandemic driving tech solutions in Africa

Cai Nebe | Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
April 19, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is posing a major challenge in Africa. With not much help expected from donors, the continent's tech geniuses are inventing quick and cheap solutions to curb the spread of the virus.

A worker at Harare's Fresh In a Box startup
Image: DW/P. Musvanhiri

Innovation and figuring things out is nothing new to Africa, a continent where people are used to making do with limited resources. From homemade farm implements and vehicles found in dusty South African barns, to a boy building a windmill out of scraps of junk in rural Malawi, to the popular mobile money payment system M-Pesa, people across Africa know how to get creative.

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic continues to compound the continent's limited resources — and not much help is expected from Western donors, whose economies have been derailed by the outbreak. Now many startup hubs across the continent are ramping up innovative solutions, even for the most basic and temporary of needs.

Read more: World Bank: 'No African country can face this crisis alone'


COVID-19 attacks the human respiratory system. People with severe symptoms struggle to breathe, and need artificial ventilation. But across Africa, there are very few intensive care units outfitted with these machines.

Read more: How do ventilators work?

It's not just an African problem: industrialized nations like the United States and Germany have ordered car manufacturers to produce ventilators en masse. With demand outstripping production, countries like South Africa, Ghana and Uganda have started looking into producing their own ventilators.

A ventilator prototype to be tested by Makerere University
This ventilator prototype is currently being tested at Makerere University in UgandaImage: Prof. Vincent Sembetya

Vincent Ssembatya, a professor at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, teamed up with another success story, car manufacturer Kiira Motors, with the only goal of making affordable ventilators to supply the country's cash-strapped health care system. "Everyone is demanding the same product, so Africa has a very small chance," Ssembatya told DW.

A team at the Academic City University College in Accra, Ghana has developed a prototype, but is currently facing financial constraints to purchase more components for the device to be ready for testing and certification.

In Nigeria, nonprofit venture capitalist Africa Business Angel Network is working on another prototype, while a local auto manufacturer, Innoson Motors, has sidelined its production to manufacture ventilators. According to the blood delivery service LifeBank, Nigeria has about 100 ventilators owned by private health facilities.

Read more: COVID-19: Africa's clerics send mixed messages to followers

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the government-controlled National Ventilator Project plans make 10,000 machines by the end of June, using locally manufactured materials or those already available.

Mobile apps and web solutions

Following its virtual hackathons last week, the World Health Organization offered up to $20,000 (€18,400) in seed funds to finalists with digital solutions to curb the pandemic.

The winning team from Ghana developed a tool that maps test cases similar to the Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center. The difference, however, is their screening tool can classify the cases according to risk and submit the data to national authorities.

Fresh In a Box delivery driver getting instructions in Harare, Zimbabwe
Mobile apps, like Zimbabwe's Fresh In A Box, have played a key role in Africa's responseImage: DW/P. Musvanhiri

In Nigeria, the on-demand health information platform Wellvis has created an easy-to-use app called COVID-19 Triage Tool. The free app allows users to self-asses their coronavirus risk category based on their symptoms and exposure history. Depending on the answers, a user is offered remote medical advice or referred to a nearby health care facility.

The South African government is using WhatsApp to run an interactive chatbot which can answer common queries about COVID-19 myths, symptoms and treatment. It has reached several million users in five different languages.

Also in South Africa, in an effort to curb fake news and quell panic, two former University of Cape Town students have created Coronapp, a tool that centralizes information flow about the pandemic.

Ghana's e-health startup Redbird launched a COVID-19 tracker in late March. The browser-based app enables users to self-report symptoms without needing to visit a health care facility. CcHub, Africa's largest tech incubator, has also launched a huge fund and open call for more tech projects.

Mobile money transfer

The use of mobile phone-based money transfer services is not uncommon in the African continent. Kenya's mobile money platform M-Pesa is used by more than 20 million people. Telecoms giant Safaricom, which owns M-Pesa has waived fees on transfers of under 1,000 shillings ($10/€9), while Airtel has also waived charges on all payments through its platform Airtel Money.

Read more: Six ways digitalization is helping Africa's environment

Ghana's central bank has asked providers to waive fees on transactions of 100 cedi ($18) and eased registrations requirements, allowing citizens to open more than one account.

A worker at Harare's Fresh In a Box startup
Image: DW/P. Musvanhiri

Food delivery services

National lockdowns in sub-Saharan Africa mean people are struggling to put food on the table.

Lockdowns are meant to stop COVID-19 from spreading. But they also stop practically everything else, including food deliveries to traditional markets. In many southern African cities, markets are key to supplying locals with daily supplies — unlike in many European countries, where people can stock up on food.

A Zimbabwean startup, Fresh In A Box, is delivering fresh produce door to door, directly from farmers. The company runs off an app, and the venerable three-wheeled motorcycles deliver the food boxes. This helps reduce the risk of infection and prevents people from starving.

In Uganda, the Market Garden app lets vendors sell and deliver fruits and vegetables to customers as restrictions to promote social distancing have been enforced. Developed by the Institute for Social Transformation, a Ugandan charity, it reduces bustling crowds in market areas by allowing women to sell their goods from their homes through the app. Motorcycle taxis deliver the goods to customers.

The African e-commerce giant Jumia has offered governments use of its last-mile delivery network for distribution of supplies to health care facilities and workers.

Frank Yiga in Uganda and Privilege Musvanhiri in Zimbabwe contributed to this report.

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