Africa: COVID-19 Casts a Long Shadow Across Africa's Communications Industry - an Opening Snapshot of What's Happening and What It Means

London — Nobody really knows how long it will take to get Covid-19 under control or its short and long-term-effects. But it's important to try and make sense of events so that the whole industry can come out of it with as little damage as possible. Russell Southwood looks at how communications in Africa will be a key element during this unprecedented crisis.

Starting in February I went from having a couple of work conference trips organized to cancelling trips to events that had been postponed and having our last face-to-face supper with friends on Monday. Regular trips to the gym in morning are now no longer but we do venture out for exercise (keeping our distance from others) and to get food. (Somebody please explain the global panic buying of toilet paper to me.) Every day we listen to the news and for the moment, it just seems to get worse.

The sharp end of this kind of personal experience was given to me this week by a South African colleague. For him it started with the cancellation of Mobile World Congress where he gets most of his sales. He's got a long and promising pipeline but a lot of it is "on hold". The development of the product he sells is delayed because people at home can't do lab testing.

So what follows below is my attempt to make sense of all the many bits of news I've been getting from my industry colleagues and contacts:

Keeping networks open

Africa's communications industry has always been vitally important for both economic and social development on the continent. So it has never been more vital than it is now in the current crisis. Networks have to continue to work and many telcos are realizing, they can play a key role in supporting things like tracking and giving capacity to health infrastructure like clinics and hospitals. For example, one of Vodacom's Covid-19 objectives is:"Improving governments'insights into people's movements in affected areas".

For example the Vodafone Group has announced:" Vodafone is offering hospitals additional network capacity and services, such as video conferencing and unlimited, fast connectivity to healthcare workers. For example, Vodafone UK has offered additional network capacity for hospitals and GPs and made available video conferencing services for patients to communicate with healthcare workers. It has also generally begun to offer free access to government-supported healthcare sites".

Companies like Vodacom, Safaricom and Vodafone Ghana should follow this lead with Africa-appropriate support: for example some companies are offering zero-rated access to essential information websites. Safaricom has said that it will not charge for mobile money transfers (below US$9.61 over the next 90 days) and has worked with the Government to increase the amount individuals can transfer. In Kenya, both Safaricom and Airtel have also set up a toll-free line, where all customers can now access information and updates on the COVID-19 virus. At a corporate level, now is not the moment for hesitation. For without this kind of support, tomorrow will look much more damaged than might otherwise be the case if help is made available now.

On March 18, Senegalese regulator ARTP gathered telephone operators to ask for contributions to help solve the crisis. They suggested logistical and financial support and a technical contribution, particularly for the Ministry of Health. The Head of the regulator emphasized the need to increase bandwidth to support home-working and SMS and internet contributions for the Ministry of Communications to keep people informed.

A Covid-19 announcement from Liquid Telecom in Zambia focused on its preparations:" The health and safety of our people and those of our customers, suppliers and other business partners is paramount. We have implemented robust contingency planning across the business to protect the health of our people and those with whom we come into contact".

More interestingly, the cloud finally comes into its own:" To ensure business continuity, most of our personnel can work and collaborate from remote sites utilizing Microsoft Teams and other tools. Where possible, we are also helping our customers to maintain operations as close as is possible to normal using similar applications." QKon in its statement talked about providing the infrastructure for employees to work at home.

In practical terms, it is important that those that run networks are seen as "key workers" by Government on the same level as nurses and doctors. Testing needs to be made available to ensure that no-one infects co-workers without realizing it. The pool of skills for running networks is not very deep in some African countries.

With this in mind, Telkom Kenya "is instituting screening at Telkom premises; virus testing for Telkom employees; and is providing early salary payments to enable preparedness for a possible lockdown". Similar steps have been taken by larger companies like the MTN Group, saying it needs "to keep the connectivity lights on for our customers at all costs."

Telecom Egypt on Tuesday increased the capacities of landline Internet packages offered to its customers by 20% for 30 days, to support distance education processes, now that schools and universities have been closed.

However, expect handset sales to decline as supply chains from China are either slowed down or cut off over the next quarter.

Information/Disinformation about the virus

The internet and social media potentially have a key role to play in getting information out to people and discussions about people helping each other.

In a joint statement released on Tuesday, Facebook, Google (and its YouTube subsidiary), Microsoft and its LinkedIn subsidiary, Reddit and Twitter, announced an alliance to combat fraud and misinformation about Covid-19.

These internet giants are committed to helping millions of people stay connected "while fighting fraud and disinformation about the virus, increasing authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates by coordination with government health agencies around the world ". Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Reddit and Twitter are also inviting other companies to join them to ensure health and safety in our communities.

At a local level, the twenty members of Cote d'Ivoire's online press (REPPRELCI) have called on their journalistic colleagues in general and those in the digital media to show more professionalism in the treatment of information related to Covid-19.

The actors of the digital press gathered within the Network of professionals of the online press of Côte d'Ivoire (REPPRELCI) call their colleagues in general and those of the digital media in particular to Consequently, the REPPRELCI invites the actors of the online press "to give the right information to the populations on the evolution of the situation in Côte d'Ivoire and in the rest of the world".

"It is up to everyone to play their role," says the president of the REPPRELCI, Lassina Serme. Adding: "This is why the actors of the Ivorian press gathered in the Network of Professionals of the Côte d'Ivoire Online Press (REPPRELCI), are fully committed to popularize the preventive measures taken by The Government. "

South Africa's national health department has set up a WhatsApp support service to provide information to locals. The automated service shares information ranging from symptoms, prevention tips and testing information to users after a keyword prompt. Over 1 million people have used it. Crucially, it also dispels growing myths about cures, from eating garlic to taking hot water baths, and sensitizes about possible scams looking to take advantage of the public's fears. While it offers citizens a credible source for information, South Africa authorities are also penalizing anyone spreading Covid-19-related misinformation with six-month jail terms and fines.

Pay TV operator Multichoice is streaming news channels for free, helping people keep up-to-date with what's happening.

Shorter and longer term changes in behavior

Short-term behavior is already changing with a great deal of business-to-business activity taking place over platforms like Zoom and Skype. Working from home or from a non-office location is something freelancers are already have been familiar with for many years but those who thrive on the social life of the office will be hit hard.

This week MTN launched Music Time, its new time-based music streaming app which will come in handy for all those days away from the office. This period should prove a bonanza for online shopping delivery companies like Jumia, which should really come into their own. Obviously not so good if you're an Uber driver unless the volume of Uber Eats increases. A tweet from Kenya praised Tusky's supermarket for efficient home delivery. Senegalese delivery start-up Paps is offering to collect and deliver medical products and that its drivers will adopt necessary hygiene measures.

Eskimi sent out an e-letter with a pertinent graph showing internet site traffic that had grown and declined. Those that had increased traffic included: finance, food, healthcare, media and pharmaceuticals. The biggest losers? Advertising, agriculture, education, energy, insurance, manufacturing, telecoms, transport and travel.

Of course, none of the above applies if you live in a poor or rural settlement with only voice and SMS on a mobile. But maybe now is the moment to accelerate communication development with people in those circumstances. Free up the money sitting in Universal Service Funds to make it happen.

The biggest short term shock to several African countries will be the loss of tourism and the communications revenues that go with it.

The key question is whether the virus lockdown will accelerate various kinds of online behavior. It was during a period of post-election violence in Kenya - which enforced a similar sort of physical lockdown - that there was a large spike in mPesa use. And as they say, the rest is history.

You're either part of the problem or part of the solution

Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver used to say:"You're either part of the problem or part of the solution." One of Africa's largest innovation incubator, CcHub has chosen to be part of the solution. It will offer funding and engineering support to tech projects aimed at curbing COVID-19 and its social and economic impact. The Lagos and Nairobi based organization posted an open application on its website this week, CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani told TechCrunch on a call. CcHub will provide $5,000 to $100,000 funding blocks to companies with COVID-19 related projects covering last-mile communication, support for the infected and the most vulnerable, production of essential medical supplies and support for disrupted food supply-chains. See here

Life goes on...

Some things continue to roll forward. One Web is still launching its third cluster of satellites from Kazakhstan.

Postscript: Despite the usual conspiracy theories about the spread of Covid-19 (inevitably it's the fault of the the Americans), analysis has shown that it is of natural origin. Although there has to be a full analysis, early reports suggested it originated in wildlife markets in Wuhan. If one unhygienic market can kill large numbers of us globally, perhaps when we we're over the worst of Covid-19, we can all spend some significant time ensuring hygiene that makes it harder for something like this to happen again.

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