Reflections on resilience, technology, and policy preparedness in Eastern Africa
“My eldest son is the deputy farm manager. He is away in college now, hopefully studying something,” so went the candid statement of a cheerful Finnish farmer who left us in stitches when we visited their commercial family farming project in the greater Helsinki area in October 2019. Such candour with a tinge of humour finds its match in the kind of answers citizens may give when asked the whereabouts of their erstwhile common and conspicuous political leaders during this Covid-19 pandemic.
Coronavirus has been a disruptive, distractive, destructive, and distancing virus. It is a watershed dividing our era apart into three distinct periods with key leadership lessons worth reflecting on: BC (Before Corona), DC (During Corona), and AC (After Corona). The BC era requires hindsight to reflect on what leaders should have done better, predictive models and timely containment measures being key. The DC era invokes insights into the prevailing circumstances — how to cope by utilising homegrown strengths and expertise for crisis management while promoting governance goodwill. As such, DC is the period over which the world can discover the icons of crisis leadership. The AC era is even more challenging. It requires incredible foresight, strategic leadership, and long-term systems thinking to deal effectively with the aftershocks of Covid-19. The AC era will, in the medium and long term, reveal to the world the leaders who have a stereoscopic vision, able to see both the immediate boundaries and the distant horizon.
This special release focuses on Eastern Africa as a bloc with a commanding lead in aggregate population size and trendsetting examples in Africa. At these critical moments, leaders need a compact bandwidth of projected scenarios to inform strategy, policy, and planning. Kenya is a trendsetter in the region. Extending the curfew period and restriction of movement in the Nairobi metropolitan area and Kenya’s coastal counties, President Uhuru Kenyatta declared that he would rely on scientific advice to calibrate policy interventions and escalate or deescalate further measures.
The global Covid-19 perspective
Covid-19 global recovery rates have been progressive, from 21% by 3rd April, 22% by 10th, 25% by 17th, to 28% by 24th April. Over the same period, death rates have also increased from 5% (7 deaths per million), 6% (12.5 deaths per million), 6.8% (18.5 deaths per million), to 7% (25.2 deaths per million) by 24th April. If Africa can maintain her low numbers, a simple data-driven model estimates a peak of 3.73 million cumulative cases worldwide by 31st May. This means June could herald hope in the horizon with a rapid fall in active cases. The model also projects global cases to reach 2.99 million by 30th April.
The opportune challenge for regional economic clusters
The Covid-19 pandemic is of great geopolitical significance. Africa is not spared the consequences in today’s connected global village. The presumptive cushioning effects of economies of scale should now be tested against the shocks Covid-19 has indiscriminately dealt on all the sectors of the economy. On the concept of an integrated Africa, I once surmised that regional blocs present feasible units of economic and social integration at scale. “The philosophy underpinning a rational re-organisation of African economic clusters needs to be responsive to all possible criteria for optimal combinations and technological innovations for prudent management (Article).” An integrated regional approach should help cushion countries against the worst cases of prolonged effects of Covid-19. Resilience, agility, scalability, and adaptability are the key ingredients that a robust regional economic cluster should institutionalise.
Demographic advantage demanding progressive philosophy
Boasting a whopping demographic supremacy of more than 440 million inhabitants, the Eastern African bloc has a clear-cut demographic advantage in Africa. Adding her stock of internationally networked diaspora who are high achievers abroad in various competencies, Eastern Africa is simply rich. Though “leaving no one behind” is the favourite rallying call as a principle of sustainable development, it remains lame without the support of the principles of interconnectedness, interdependence, inclusiveness, and multistakeholder partnerships.
I ascribe to the philosophical persuasion that knowledge and technology-led influence is the new arena of borderless global competitiveness. I don’t respect the common view of brain drain in its archaic form that treats the physical separation of the diaspora from their homeland as a loss of human capital. Rather, I believe in a strategic, borderless diaspora engagement framework that can utilise the digital transformation to attract their meaningful contribution to national development beyond remittances in the GDP matrix. This thought lays ground for the my views on what Covid-19 implies for this regional bloc.
Eastern Africa needs to maximise on the opportunities of the digital economy and digital transformation as a borderless channel to tap into the rich skillsets and international networks of the diaspora. For this to happen, the governments must collectively create an enabling environment of good governance and political goodwill from the top.
The highs and lows of a continent’s ambivalence
Dothe relatively low Covid-19 numbers confirmed in Africa signal the lull before the storm or early good news to a continent hardened by hardship from time immemorial? Well-targeted mass testing of community transmission clusters and hotspots remains key to deciding when the much-awaited flattening of the curve will commence. To track the efficiency and effectiveness of testing for Covid-19, the rates should be normalised to reflect country populations and the duration in days.
Performance parameters in Europe and the USA are instructive to success factors in the war against the pandemic. By 24th April 2020, Germany had Covid-19 death rate of 4%, recovery rate of 70%, and testing rate of 275 tests/million/day. By this date, Spain had Covid-19 death rate of 10%, recovery rate of 42%, and testing rate of 231 tests/million/day. Italy had Covid-19 death rate of 13%, recovery rate of 31%, and testing rate of 312 tests/million/day. France had Covid-19 death rate of 14%, recovery rate of 27%, and testing rate of 76 tests/million/day. This was comparable to the UK’s death rate of 14% and 101 tests/million/day. The USA had 6% death rate, 10% recovery rate, and 157 tests/million/day. The effectiveness of testing Covid-19 prevalence among the country populations emerges here as a key success factor, hence providing important governance lessons on managing the pandemic.
Onthe normalised metric of Covid-19 tests per million per day, Eastern Africa dims in comparison to the European and American examples, exposing a key gap in the mass testing capacity. Rwanda had a higher score in Eastern Africa at 13, ahead of Uganda’s 11, Kenya’s 7.4, and Ethiopia’s 2.4 by 24th April 2020. Uganda and Rwanda have been leading the region in the metrics of recovery and death rates, scoring recovery rates of 62% and 56% respectively by 24th April and no Covid-19 death (0%) for both by then. Ethiopia’s 3% death rate by 24th April was also quite low in the region. The recovery rates in Rwanda and Uganda were, therefore, much higher than Kenya’s recovery rate of 28% by 24th April, then at par with the global recovery rate. Tanzania’s trend has been shocked by a recent sharp rise in the infections against a lower recovery rate of 17% and a death rate of 4%, at par with Kenya’s death rate by 24th April. Lower than the global average by this date was Ethiopia’s 21% recovery rate. Compared to leading examples in Western and Southern African blocs, Eastern Africa could emulate Ghana and South Africa. By 24th April, Ghana had a testing effectiveness metric of 66 tests/million/day, a low death rate of 0.8% and 11% recovery rate. South Africa had by then registered 50 tests/million/day, 2% death rate, and 35% recovery rate.
Byforcing a lockdown so that countries cannot escape the realities of the state of their national healthcare systems and emergency preparedness, the cloud of Covid-19 has a silver lining, after all. It has shifted attention to domestic capacities for creativity and innovation. The crisis has exposed the underutilised capacity of young graduates and local industries. In Kenya, for example, innovations by local industries, research institutes, and universities have enhanced the local testing capacity and production of healthcare equipment. Governors of devolved units such as Mombasa, Kitui, Samburu, Makueni, among others have been showing leadership in containing the Covid-19 crisis through local manufacturing capacity, proactive policy innovation to put in place measures such as social safety nets. This turn of events can attribute the high import dependency in the region, even for basic materials that can be produced locally, to governance failures. The development further proves that where desire or reason have failed to trigger change, nature and compulsion may take over to force a transformation.
How have notable East African countries reacted to contain Covid-19?
On average, it has taken a shorter time across Africa (about 16 days) to experience the start to a fast rise in country Covid-19 curves than in the battered Europe and USA, where the average lag before the critical exponential phase lasted about a month. If the experience in Europe and the USA is anything to go by, then taking a shorter time to the start of the fast growth phase in Covid-19 curve could be a harbinger of tougher times ahead in containing the spread of the pandemic. There is, therefore, a good reason for cautious optimism among country leaders in Africa.
The figure below compares the growth of Covid-19 cases in Kenya and Tanzania, two country cases in Eastern Africa which gave different policy responses to the pandemic in terms of speed and strictness. The reported cases in Tanzania remained low for about a month when Kenya had already enforced strict movement restrictions and enhanced testing. Thereafter, Tanzania’s cumulative numbers are seen to be catching up with Kenya’s. Uganda and Rwanda were even swifter and stricter, and their Covid-19 numbers have remained lower than Kenya’s, with no deaths reported.
Kenya has since 16th April been reporting Covid-19 cases that fall within 2% difference of the projections made by this thought-leadership series using a data-driven mathematical model. As shown, the projection estimates more than 400 total cases in Kenya by the end of April, assuming the confirmed business-as-usual trend of sampling and testing. Such a model aids in policy and planning.
What’s the foreseeable impact of Covid-19 on Eastern Africa?
This question invokes a keen interpretation of the emerging global trends and a careful consideration of the inherent interconnectedness between countries. In my well-considered opinion, Covid-19 is taking a heavy toll on the following sectors: education, leisure and tourism including event planning, oil and gas, aviation and transport generally, and the real estate. These sectors are taking a major beating not only because of reduced activities and the resultant decline in spending frequency and power, but also the wide digital divide which makes shifting to the new normal of working online a privilege the majority cannot even dream of, including the bulk of young students sent home to stay in rustic, disparate and digitally deprived locations.
In terms of labour market demographics, young informal sector workers will be the worst hit as containment measures limit their productivity and mobility across multiple engagements. For a region whose median age is 20, the effects are extensive. Since the restrictions occasioned by containment measures disrupt backward and forward linkages, the manufacturing sector takes a heavy beating too. Agriculture appears to be occupying the middle ground, being the mainstay of the factor-driven economies in this bloc. Social safety nets must resort to the household food budget as the basic need during lockdowns, hence linked to the agricultural value chain. Export-oriented production is a major loser, being affected adversely by transport and travel restrictions.
Production for domestic consumption and distribution through regular channels and online platforms are potential winners. The most visible winners in the short term are: e-commerce, online events, digital financial and consultancy services, ICT and cloud services, healthcare products and services, as well as food processing and storage.
What does Covid-19 portend for SMEs in the bloc?
SMEs are the backbone of the regional economy. Horizontal integration, a feature we see among hotel chains, stands to be tested against the tide of Covid-19 that has led to the closure of hospitality businesses. How this business model compares to vertical integration needs a careful assessment in business models as we proceed.
A shift from the traditional pipeline model to platform as a service (PaaS) is the new compelling route to thriving SMEs that can stay afloat during similar crises. Without placing exact figures, Eastern Africa is going to experience a decline in economic growth with a shrinking of the GDP of the member states by 1–3%. Depending on a country’s quality of governance and the resilience and agility of her sectors, economic recovery may take more than two years.
Reflections on data and disaster governance
Data is a strategic asset in disaster governance, Big Data being critical to predictive modelling as opposed to the traditional reactionary responses to disasters. With the growing currency and visibility of the works of artificial intelligence and machine learning, data-driven models enhance a shared visual understanding of scenarios which inform intelligent strategies, policy action, efficient planning, and behaviour change.
The tracing of hotspots requires location-based intelligence, hence spatial data. The cluster of Covid-19 transmission in Germany, for example, was traced to a saltshaker in Bavaria. This is a fitting example of how quality data and models can lead to economical and precise solutions. Data-driven models are, therefore, an essential part of the multifaceted approach required to combat disasters and diseases in Eastern Africa. In the absence of quality data and models, misleading metrics can easily create complacency while disguising a stealthy but finally explosive disaster trajectories.
Covid-19 rightfully challenges the governments of Eastern Africa to pay a keen attention to data governance, digital access, and early warning systems. Under the umbrella of the African Union, there has been a continental data consensus for data-driven solutions. Earth observation services through space technologies are becoming more and more urgent with the advancing need to firm up spatial data initiatives. The Africa Regional Data Cube (ARDC) and Digital Earth Africa (DEA) need an accelerated push to provide analysis-ready data for timely and sound decision support. The role of sensors and satellites in feeding intelligent systems with data for decision support cannot be overemphasised. The new frontier of industrialisation, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, has not found a better time exert the need for countries to invest in adequate technology infrastructure.
Collective efforts at bridging the digital divide is not just a good idea for the governments of Eastern Africa, but the very irreducible minimum standard for operational efficiency in viable networking and sustainable partnerships. It is a worthy challenge to policymakers in the region to pass regulations that can boost digitalisation, automation, unmanned technologies for mapping and data capture, and integrated ecosystems for data governance. These are prerequisites for prolific and impactful research.
Legacy systems are less of a hindrance to innovation and transformation than legacy thinking. This premise gives quality education and training an irreplaceable top position in the hierarchy of the essential conditions for post-Covid-19 resilience and mutual progress based on robust innovation ecosystems. Tertiary-level programmes on data science and spatial technologies deserve a major boost, complete with dedicated mentorship, government internships, and long-term engagement plans with a strong component of research and development. Figuratively speaking using the three states of water, sound education systems should enable the formative stages of learning to act as the ice stage, a great stage for nurturing solid curiosity. The secondary stage of learning is the liquid state — to facilitate free exploration, talent management, and discovery. Universities should then be the boiling point — the climax at which impactful solutions to societal problems are discharged like the driving power of steam under pressure.
Covid-19 has proved to be a double-edged sword, not only in Eastern Africa but globally. On the one hand, it has ravaged economies with a huge loss of earnings to most workers in Eastern Africa. On the other hand, it has challenged the status quo and triggered local creativity and innovation with a rising uptake of digital solutions and appreciation of flexible remote working modes which identify more with the gig economy. Governments will have to improve healthcare systems substantially as part of their critical infrastructure. Because decision support is critical to strategic planning towards confronting new challenges as the Covid-19 curve flattens, quality data ecosystems and human capital must take the centre stage. Leaders in Eastern Africa need to reinvent their approach to institutionalise a new progressive governance and innovation ecosystem. In this new ecosystem, data should be regarded as the blood of the new ecosystem to leverage predictive and not reactive responses. Each member state must train and regard human capital, including the diaspora, highly as the brain of the ecosystem, the ultimate and irreplaceable resource for quality and sustainable research and development. They must also enhance technology infrastructure to act as the nervous system. Ultimately, good governance must remain the moral backbone for sustained and inclusive regional development. Remember, a government that trivialises science and evidence-based models in decision making invites stealthy, mostly slow, but exponentially damaging consequences in the long run.
Nashon, a geospatial expert, lecturer and trained policy analyst applies dynamic models to complex adaptive systems. He is a youth mentor on career development and the founder of Impact Borderless Digital.