COVID-19 could be springboard for African innovations

Copyright: Image by Thomas G. from Pixabay

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  • Of 1,000 global innovations created to tackle COVID-19, 120 were made by innovators in Africa
  • The innovations could spur resource-poor economies
  • Experts urge governments and tech companies to support young innovators

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[NAIROBI] The COVID-19 pandemic could be a blessing in disguise for Africa’s future growth because innovative ideas for addressing it could chart a path for future tech-based economies, scientists say.

The technologies that have been developed in response to COVID-19 in Africa include WhatsApp Chatbots in South Africa, self-diagnostic tools in Angola, contact tracing apps in Ghana and mobile health information tools in Nigeria.

“Africa’s future is dependent on technology and innovation, which are crucial for addressing the challenges of low structural transformation and inclusive development on the continent,” says Moredreck Chibi, WHO Africa regional advisor for innovation, in an interview with SciDev.Net this month.

“There is a need for investing in innovation as an absolute and fundamental shift in the continent’s traditional business model.”

“There is a need for investing in innovation as an absolute and fundamental shift in the continent’s traditional business model.”

Moredreck Chibi, WHO Regional Office for Africa

Chibi explains that some rapidly developing health technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic include reconfiguration of District Health Information System in countries such as Kenya, South Africa and Uganda to offer key functionalities such as accelerated case detection, situation reporting, active surveillance and response for COVID-19.

And in a recent analysis conducted by the WHO Africa Regional Office, Africa accounted for 120 of the 1,000 new or modified technologies deployed worldwide to respond to COVID-19 including, surveillance, treatment, prevention and control.

According to the analysis, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa were the leading innovators — accounting for 37 per cent of the continent’s share — mainly due to existing innovation frameworks in those countries.

The WHO Africa analysis conducted between July and September 2020 examined 1,000 COVID-19 technological innovations electronically from scientific databases such as PubMed, Google Scholar and Scopus using a custom web-mining instruction to search the web for text, image, audio, or videos of the innovations.

Researchers also examined all COVID-19-related technologies published on different organisation websites, social media channels such as Twitter, and on several local and international media channels.

Moses Makayoto, the immediate former deputy director at the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute and an award-winning Kenyan research scientist and innovator, says the number of new tech innovations coming out of some African countries is not surprising.

According to Makayoto, a good educational system is one of the reasons behind the African COVID-19 innovation growth, adding that many African educational institutions are doing well in global rankings.

“Kenyan universities and technical colleges, for instance, rank high on the continent and globally. Top notch research and innovation go on in these institutions all the time,” he tells SciDev.Net.

“The ideas are being turned into reality in the various tech incubation centres across the country,” Makayoto says.

According to Chibi, the origin of Africa’s tech movement can be traced to Kenya, which has been home to several technological innovations between 2007 and 2010, branding Kenya as Africa’s Silicon Valley.

But despite many African countries having policies, strategic frameworks and investments for innovations, not many African countries are creating and implementing innovations, Chibi says.

Peter Ofware, country director of HealthRight International, Kenya, says that technology plays a key role in the health sector, and therefore economies of resource-poor countries.

“It is encouraging therefore to note that the creativity among innovators is inspired even by a crisis like COVID-19 … the biggest heath challenge in a generation,” he says.

There is the need to improve on the existing policy frameworks and invest in improving infrastructure to spur further growth in tech innovation.

“Governments have a responsibility to sensitise the young people who are behind most start-ups to realise they hold the future of their countries through such innovations,” he tells SciDev.Net. “Major tech companies and ICT service providers have a corporate social responsibility to give incentives to start-ups.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.