In 2019, the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) published the report Measuring digital development. The report presented several important facts and figures, including that an estimated 4.1 billion people have used the Internet in 2019. Among them, 83.9% came from developed countries (DC), while only 19.6% came from the least developed countries (LDCs).
Africa is the region with the lowest Internet usage rate. Although Internet penetration is slowly growing in Africa, we have noticed that 79% of the population is covered by a 3G or faster connection, which offers an opportunity for reducing the development gap between the regions in the world.
Despite the high penetration of mobile devices, African countries are lagging behind in Human Development Index (HDI) rankiings. Because of this, some argue that less emphasis should be placed on Internet access, and information and communication technology (ICT), and more on reliable electricity, medical attention, and food and water supplies, which are not available to all. All these concerns are legitimate and vital to the local population, and the primary obligation of every government is to ensure that basic needs, such as food, healthcare, and shelter, are met. ICT is often seen as of secondary importance, and the topic fuels passionate debates.
Many will agree that our bellies should be full before we talk about ICT, especially in developing countries such as Africa, but it is interesting that ICT is helping to achieve exactly this.
ICTs and quality healthcare
In their remarkable paper titled ICTs for Health in Africa, Meera Shekar and Kate Otto stated that countries in Africa spend significant amounts of their gross domestic product (GDP) on delivering healthcare services through systems that are often inefficient, costly, and that lack transparency. Yet, 20-40% of all healthcare expenses were wasted due to inefficiencies.
To address these challenges, countries are now relying on the potential of ICT to improve the quality of healthcare services across the continent, in ways that not only increase efficiency, but additionally improve accountability, governance, and transparency in the health sector.
At the ITU 2018 Plenipotentiary Conference, Rwanda’s Minister of Information Communication Technology and Innovation Paula Ingabire explained that healthcare in Rwanda has seen progress thanks to the use of drones that deliver blood supplies to different hospitals and health centres. ‘You are able to save lives because you are able to get blood in a much faster way. It usually took us 3 hours to deliver blood and now it has come down to 26 minutes’, stated Ingabire
Like Rwanda, several countries are implementing telemedicine and e-learning projects. Some countries use mobile phones for: supporting healthcare delivery, education, and raising awareness; remote data collection, remote monitoring, and home care, and; communicating treatments to patients, and reporting and responding to disease outbreaks and emergencies.
In South Africa, the messaging platform MomConnect, an initiative of the South African National Department of Health, aims to support maternal health through the use of cell-phone-based technologies integrated into maternal and child health services. The services are free, and messages are available in all 11 official languages. Over 465 000 users have adopted this service, demonstrating the increasing maturity of digital participation.
In Uganda, around 27 000 government healthcare workers are using a mobile healthcare system called mTRAC to report about stocks across the country. In West and Central Africa, via public-private partnerships under the umbrella of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, the SMS for Life programme was established. Led by Novartis, the programme helps eliminate stock-outs of antimalarial drugs in public healthcare facilities.
ICT and the Internet are not only improving the health of patients, but are used to track and deliver essential commodities to remote and rural healthcare centres throughout Africa.
The COVID-19 pandemic has additionally put governments around the world under huge pressure, and most of them, especially in Africa, are relying on ICT and social media to mitigate the outbreak.
Undeniably, the problem of healthcare-system deficiencies in Africa is finding solutions through the use of new technologies, which assist health workers in delivering help to those mainly living in rural areas.
ICTs and food quality
There is no doubt that the agricultural sector is facing serious challenges in Africa, mostly in the sub-Saharan region. The productivity of this business sector is still too weak to effectively tackle poverty reduction and food security. Despite these challenges, African governments and farmers are using ICTs as sustainable solutions. As technologies are increasingly present in all spheres of human life, ICTs are playing a key role in agriculture by enhancing innovation, knowledge sharing, and productivity.
Relying mostly on mobile technologies, digital applications for agriculture are providing farming information via text messages and online multimedia content to agricultural agencies, researchers, and farmers. Advanced technologies such as aerial images from civilian drones and satellites, weather forecasts, and soil data are shared with farmers providing them with information on things like crop growth and planting conditions.
In Ethiopia, farmers are using the data input system Connection Online Connection Offline (CoCo), which does not require software installation, and is compatible with any device. CoCo’s database includes an analytics dashboard with instant statistics about operations, targets, and metrics. These pieces of information are monitored and evaluated to improve food systems in the whole country.
In some countries of East Africa, like Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, 2KUZE is connecting farmers with buyers and agents via mobile commerce. By using the 2KUZE mobile platform, smallholders can directly connect with buyers and agents, secure the best prices for their goods, and receive payments securely via phones without having to walk for hours to the market. The platform is especially useful for female farmers who may be held back by family obligations.
In Kenya, a start-up called Illuminum Greenhouses constructs affordable greenhouses and installs automated drip irrigation to help smallholders optimise production in an affordable way. So far, that start-up has built more than 1455 greenhouses, helped more than 8600 farmers, improved the lives of more than 16 442 citizens, and allowed farmers to earn more than USD$140 per month.
In Nigeria, the precision-farming start-up Zenvus measures and analyses soil data such as temperature, nutrients, and vegetative health, to help farmers apply the right fertilisers and to optimally irrigate their farms. Zenvus’ digital services offer tailored advice to farmers on what, when, and how to plant, and allows them to view real-time crop prices. ‘This will have a tangible effect on poverty in Africa because most households and families are going to see higher incomes,’ stated Ndubuisi Ekekwe (9), the company’s founder.
While it may be early to evaluate the global impacts of the digitalisation of farming systems in Africa, these few encouraging examples demonstrate that using new technologies in agriculture gives an opportunity to our farmers to improve not only their agricultural techniques, but also to increase their yield, ensuring food for the growing population of the continent.
Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ‘ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages’ in ‘a world with zero hunger’ by 2030, will, especially in Africa, not only necessitate countries to strengthen their management of national healthcare strategies, but will also intensify agricultural production by reducing input wastes and increasing yield.
As shown above, ICTs and the Internet are becoming essential means implemented by African countries to increase the quality of healthcare, food production, the standard of living, and the general socio-economic development of the population at large.
Arthur Carindal N'guessan is the head of stakeholder engagement at AFRINIC, the regional Internet registry for Africa. Having held several upper management roles within the African telecommunications industry, he has a deep understanding of ICT innovation, challenges and potential for the continent. He is currently working on the Internet uptake and sustainable development as a growth engine and leverage for social transformation. He is also actively involved in initiatives that empower youth through technology and digital tools. N'guessan holds an MBA, as well as several technical certificates in ICT.