Ahmed Mohamud Yusuf, CEO of Hormuud, explains why, in Africa’s battle against COVID-19, telecoms will prove to be an essential public service
We are already beginning to see Covid-19 take hold across vast swathes of Africa. This just the beginning of something far worse. In my own country, Somalia, cases in Mogadishu are rising quickly, and the population is growing increasingly concerned. In these circumstances, information, and the ability to communicate that information accurately, has never been more important. For many in Africa, it may even be the difference between life and death.
Intervention is needed now, and it needs to come from foreign governments and international institutions who want to help the organizations enabling the dissemination of information. In the end, the countries whose populations are informed will weather the storm far better than those whose who aren’t. They are far more likely to adhere to social distancing rules, be sceptical of gossip and hearsay and maintain the standard of hygiene required to limit the spread of the virus.
As it is, Africa has not been affected as badly by the Corona virus as other continents have. Around 22,000 people have so far been infected; in Europe, the figure stands at over one million. But rest assured the first number will rise, and if we do not have in place clear strategies for prevention and containment, the fragile health systems across the continent will be overrun. What makes our situation all the more urgent is the fact that respiratory disease is already high in Africa, and soap and clean water for hand-washing are not available to many.
Mobile communication has a starring role to play in this. The ability to deliver accurate public health information to large populations as well as the ability to counter misinformation—has only been made possible by mobile networks. We rely just as much on mobile networks to allow us to track and trace the spread of the pandemic, and even the consultation process with medical professionals will rest on mobile phone communication. At Hormuud, we have taken the necessary steps to provide free public hotlines to the Ministry of Health, and created voicemail messages that can bring public health announcements to those among us who cannot read.
But we do not want Africa just to ‘survive’ this difficult period. We want to come out on the other side with our economy and business ecosystem intact. As countries introduce lockdowns, towns and villages will quickly run out of cash, the exchange of which would also breach social distancing rules. From then on, mobile money will become the main means of payment. We have already seen China replace cash with a digital equivalent, and it’s clear that if economies wish to stay healthy then enabling mobile payments is paramount.
And businesses can only continue to operate through mobile networks. For market traders and taxi drivers, for instance, the maintenance of business networks through applications like WhatsApp will determine whether communities choose to self-isolate or carry on as normal. We need to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, but we also need to keep people fed and money flowing through the system. Mobile networks allow for both.
In Somalia, we face an uncertain future. Many years of war and conflict have left our institutions and public health systems vulnerable, and while positive news of the provision of medical supplies is welcome, more is needed.
That is why we must use advantages where we can find them. For Somalis, mobile connectivity is an integral part of everyday life. In fact, Somalia is one of the most connected populations on the continent, and most of the population owns a mobile. And since more than 95% of the Somali Shillings in circulation are counterfeit, the economy relies on mobile money to function. For Somalians, telecoms are already an essential public service and we are conscious of our responsibility to them as their provider.
While we do not hold all the answers, we are in a unique position to understand the role that telecoms will play in this crisis and feel an obligation to let the world know.
What international bodies who hope to tackle the pandemic have to recognize is how fundamental mobile connectivity will be in wider Africa’s battle against the Coronavirus. And once they have done that, they must start thinking about how they can strengthen telecommunications infrastructure across the continent—and fast. Doing so at a time like this could make all the difference.