From flattening the explicit COVID curve to flattening implicit impediments to innovation
Flattening Africa’s COVID-19 curve needs to be accompanied by a just transition that includes a flattening of the playing field, which has for ages shoved the continent to the wrong side of the digital divide. For now, the lessons of COVID-19 are just getting deposited into our bank of knowledge and experience. The value of these precious lessons, like attractive compound interest in a choice investment, will escalate in the post-pandemic era. Innovation will continue exerting its significance as a pillar of competitiveness, which doesn’t run into diminishing returns.
Africa’s emerging COVID-19 curve
If the model used here is anything to go by, then a scenario of declining trends in Africa’s COVID-19 cases is highly expected. Dwindling testing rates due to emerging constraints on country testing capacities is a key model assumption here. The July 31 model projection of between 871,452 and 1,118,495 cases was realised with 909,712 confirmed cases, 4.2% above the lower model projection. If the assumption holds as shown, a range of 1.17 – 1.41 million cases is likely by September 2, 2020.
Kenya, for instance, has been facing similar constraints with a fall of 50% in the number of samples tested over the period August 16–17, 2020. By early August, the population-normalised testing rates in Egypt and Nigeria had remained below an all-time average of 10 tests per million people per day. South Africa, Rwanda, Ghana, Senegal, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Madagascar had by August 14, 2020, recorded corresponding metrics of 350, 164, 88, 46, 46, 32, and 12, respectively, on the same all-time average measure.
The future of civil liberties
Come August 26, 2020, the future of African civil liberties will be a key topic of discussion at the upcoming virtual Thought Leaders Forum on the Future of Africa in the Post COVID-19 World, organised by the Inter Region Economic Network (IREN), a private think tank. As we begin the week, we need more than ever a special package of life lessons for a motivating reset despite the ravaging pandemic.
Bishop Dr David Oginde, a well-known Kenyan clergyman and leadership expert, focused his recent August 17, 2020 Monday Hope Radio talk series on sustaining marketplace relevance through continuous innovation and checking on limiting “defender strategy.” Similarly, the IBD series has stated, “If you keep defending your limitations, you will have to keep and maintain them. Though tolerance levels are all fit-for-purpose vehicles, not all of them fit all purposes. Wise choice prevails”. Let’s now delve into a few choice lessons that should refocus Africa’s liberty to fully exploit the new opportunities brought forth by the new post-pandemic era.
Duality is interwoven with every strand of experience in the fabric of life. To avoid the dead-sea experience, outlets are just as important as inlets to the health of water reservoirs. The same applies to our reservoir of talents and knowledge. We must keep releasing value from the treasure trove of our refined gifts, talents, and knowledge in order to free up space for fresh and innovative ideas. Similarly, tributaries and distributaries are to the health of water bodies what friends and enemies are to the making of legends. COVID-19, consequently, has a key role in reimagining the future of health and work. The progressive lessons of the pandemic should prepare us for a future of frugal living. The lessons should position us to fully utilise emerging opportunities at the very crest of the digital transformation wave.
Look before you leap. Again, think twice before you criticise. Criticism from the wrong perspective always misses the point because it misses the purpose. A case in point was Robert Cumming’s criticism of a masterpiece painting in London’s National Gallery by the 15th-century Italian Renaissance artist, Filippino Lippi. Robert’s criticism and dismissal of the painting as grossly disproportionate only lasted until he changed his position, took a new vantage point on his knees, and discovered that his perspective from the standing position of overconfidence was the wrong one. The perspective of the painting was precisely proportionate and right on purpose. The purpose of the painting was to aid worship by a people humbled on their knees in a place of prayer, not to be admired by a rowdy standing crowd in a gallery.
To avoid the damaging overconfidence that can derail the government-led war against COVID-19, nation-states must remain liberal and open to innovative ideas and the contribution of various community stakeholders to the fight against the pandemic. The village wag in rural Kenya is no less a stakeholder in containing the pandemic than the privileged decision-maker at the helm of the Ministry of Health. As a government or a leader, you do need both praise and criticism from citizens; these two kinds of response are key to progress and innovation in equal measure.
From time immemorial, human actions have been associated with stimuli that trigger responses. Pandemics are part of these stimuli. Coming hot on the heels of a digital revolution, COVID-19 makes compulsion a first among equals in the list of the seven triggers of human action and modifiers of culture. Aristotle presented the six other triggers as desire, passion, habit, reason, nature, and chance.
Any country’s quality of health, education, and technology infrastructure did not have to wait for the indiscriminate compelling force of COVID-19 to improve. Numerous recommendations from policy dialogues, conferences, and research outputs have always pointed in this direction. It pays off to retreat and rethink development priorities and perspectives. The position of humility and surrender recalibrates us for a proper understanding of the right perspectives of others. Overconfidence in peerless past performance can be a disservice as our elevated ego prompts us to dismiss others or alternative views, at first sight, all without performing due diligence.
Redirecting the course of history
COVID-19 is, therefore, a watershed redirecting the course of world history. The pandemic has defined a pivotal moment of our civilisation. It has happened at the auspicious moment when the world was elated with an enthusiastic start to the Decade of Delivery. COVID-19 has been the seedbed for rethinking and reimagining a new normal of digitally leveraged social and economic engagements. E-commerce and software companies have had their day as the pipeline model of traditional transactions loses ground to emerging platform service models running online. Engaging a borderless talent pool including the widely distributed experts and diaspora is the next frontier of competition for skills between nations.
Rediscovering horizons of digital possibilities
COVID-19 has not exposed the borderless horizons of digital possibilities and the accompanying resource-savings any less than necessity has been the mother of inventions. The new developments brought about by COVID-19 evoke the memory of an interview on brain drain I once had with the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading daily newspaper. It was published on January 17, 2020, under the Personality of the Week column. I presented a radically different perspective on brain drain, challenging governments which have not embraced the digital transformation to change tack and place priority on developing adequate technology infrastructure, complete with the policy innovations required to tap into the wealth of human capital in the diaspora without waiting for their physical presence or relocation home.
The pandemic has demonstrated that virtual collaboration is practical, fit-for-purpose and rendering many expensive and time-consuming logistics of physical meetings unnecessary. Before COVID-19, we let off or missed the participation of key people in value creation for reasons such as delayed visas, long distances, traffic, travel time and costs, among others. Not anymore! Who would have imagined the success of virtual collaborations and the possibility of virtual forums across the globe, all realised through compelling adjustments that took barely a month after the merciless onset of the pandemic?
Several international conferences that were scheduled for 2020 have proceeded online. Technology will work to bridge the social gap, allowing participants to interact through remote and collaborative telepresence. The 38th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society System held in July and FSCI 2020 Conference in August are such events that showcased the borderless power of virtual connections.
In Kenya, we successfully conducted this year’s Enactus National Expo — virtually. Participants could add value from the comfort of their preferred locations, leaving no one behind who cared to participate irrespective of distance. Impact Borderless Digital (IBD) has since March 2020 been holding virtual forums to mentor youth and young professionals, reaching out globally to tap into the borderless knowledge-led influence from experts at home and abroad.
In East Africa, Kenya and Rwanda have been trendsetters in pioneering different technologies. Arguably, Kenya has featured the keywords of reimagination, reinvention, and resilience in policy statements more than the rest. To ensure countrywide online connectivity, Kenya has been the first country in the world to commercially test the viability of stratospheric 4G Internet balloons for rural communities, solar-powered and leveraged by artificial intelligence (AI). This move should improve the utilisation of Kenya’s leading smartphone penetration in Africa. Rwanda has been outstanding in the region for her leading population-normalised COVID-19 testing rates, more than three times Kenya’s, besides using robots and drones to expedite disease and disaster governance.
Finally, the COVID-19 message remains firm, only becoming clearer by the day: The space for innovations is broad and progressive, but the pool of innovators is narrow and keeps shrinking in an environment deprived by limiting mindsets. Africa must not only flatten the COVID curve, but the skewed attitudes and technology barriers that have hindered progress for generations.
By Nashon Adero
Nashon Adero is a lecturer in the School of Mines and Engineering at Taita Taveta University, Kenya. He is the Founder of Impact Borderless Digital, a youth mentorship programme focused on lifelong skills development and global citizenship.