Togo: Using Digital Tools to Fight Covid-19 and Protect the Most Vulnerable

Government uses tech to contact trace, send money to the poor during lockdown, and now for vaccination rollout

When, in early April, I met Akuvi Sossah, a 52-year-old mother of four at the local medical centre in a northern suburb in Togo's capital Lomé, she proudly showed me the confirmation code on her mobile phone for her first COVID-19 vaccine shot.

To make access to COVID-19 vaccination easier, Togolese authorities have made it possible for people like Ms. Sossah to use their mobile phones to register for COVID-19 vaccination on a dedicated website.

Thanks to the COVAX facility, Togo received its first 156,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines on 7 March, through coordinated support from WHO and UNICEF. Within a week, the country vaccinated 98% of its health workers, the priority group identified in the national vaccination strategy. Within two weeks, 19% of people aged over-50 years in the greater Lomé, where 72% of all COVID-19 cases in Togo are, were also vaccinated.

In launching the vaccination campaign on 10 March, the government bet on the use of digital platforms to reach the greatest number of people possible, particularly those at risk of being left behind. By early April, more than 50,000 people had registered for vaccination through SMS on their phones and on the website.

The procedure is simple. From any local mobile phone number, the user dials *844#, completes the steps through the dialogue box, and gets a 14-digit code that they can then show at the health centre to get vaccinated.

On the website, the menu allows users to register within 5 minutes. This easy-to-access procedure allows health workers to save valuable time that they use to administer the vaccine to as many people possible.

Ms. Sossah also told me that she was one of the 581,130 Togolese (65% of whom are women) who benefited from a three-month cash transfer through the Novissi programme initiated by the government to mitigate the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 on the poor during a period when movement restrictions disrupted jobs and income for informal workers.

The Novissi programme, supported by the World Bank and the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), was hailed as a positive example by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, winners of the 2019 Nobel prize in economics. It consisted of transferring to eligible beneficiaries a mobile cash amount of approximately $19 for men and $22 for women for a period of three months.

Mobile phone cash transfers

Through the direct cash transfers on mobile phones, the government significantly reduced intermediary costs and minimized the risks of beneficiaries not receiving their money.

Advancing digital transformation is equally among the top priorities of the United Nations country team in Togo.

"Mobile cash is the best way to help Africa fight COVID-19", the President of Togo, Faure Gnassingbe, said in his recent Op-Ed published in the Financial Times.

In the same vein, mobile cash has been used by UNHCR in Togo to support the refugee population as part of the UN support to COVID-19 response.

From the pandemic's onset, the use of mobile phones or web platforms has been at the centre of the country's response. In July 2020, the government launched TogoSafe, a web portal and a mobile app designed to facilitate contact tracing through digital geolocation, enable compliance with COVID-19 procedures by incoming and outgoing travelers, and to share test results through contactless means, including email and SMS alerts.

When women lead

To implement his bold aspiration for innovation, President Gnassingbe appointed a female ICT minister, Ms. Cina Lawson, to lead the digital transformation in Togo. The country has seen women's representation in decision-making advance significantly in recent years.

The current Prime minister, Ms. Victoire Tomegah Dogbe, who was appointed in September 2020, and the Speaker of Parliament in Togo, Ms. Yawa Djigbodi Tsegan, since January 2019, are both female. Also, over 30% of the Cabinet ministers are women.

Building on its recent strides in the promotion of women leadership and as part of Africa's contribution to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, also known as Beijing+25, Togo is now leading a regional initiative supported by UNFPA to inspire women and girls in Africa.

In 2019, UNDP supported the government in establishing Nunya Lab, a hub for innovative entrepreneurship and digital solutions for the youth. Through its Accelerator Labs, UNDP is supporting the establishment by the government of a national digital health centre to facilitate telemedicine; it also partnered with UNICEF to launch the pilot phase of the digitalization of birth registration in one of the southern communes.

UN donated communication equipment

To enable seamless communication among government officials and with their partners in the context of COVID-19 response, UNDP provided 34 video-conferencing kits and accounts to the office of the Prime Minister for the use by all the ministries in Togo.

In a small country with big ambitions like Togo, the digital sector is undoubtedly one of the most promising means for leapfrogging and accelerated investment in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With the use of ICT in the health sector, the government is reducing geographical barriers to health service provision and has unleashed the potential to locally collect and use big data to inform policy decisions.

The UN System in Togo is committed to support locally-led initiatives to scale up the use of ICT to reduce geographical and social barriers in the delivery of basic social services. The digital environment and the solid political will are favourable conditions for the upcoming rollout in Togo of the ITU/UNICEF giga initiative to support the government in connecting every school to the Internet by 2030.

The digital transformation aims to ensure that people like Ms. Sossah are not left behind. After she received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, she returned to her market stall. She's ready to use her confirmation code for the second vaccination shot in five weeks.

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