Necessity is the mother of all inventions… and entrepreneurs carry with them the spirit to see opportunity even in the most difficult circumstances.
When the dark cloud of COVID-19 engulfed the world and spread like wildfire, Governments across the world had little choice but to act quickly and impose lockdown regulations. Existing health infrastructure and processes were overwhelmed and clearly struggling to contain the deadly virus. It is in this difficult and uncertain context that a nucleus of African Digital entrepreneurs got together to volunteer their expertise and time to create a new digital layer of defence against the coronavirus on the continent. The vulnerability of most African national health systems necessitated the creation of a scalable digital platform that relies on the expertise and creativity of digital volunteers across the entire African continent.
The idea was enabled by sizable investments that were made by global hyperscalers and cloud companies. Alibaba made AI powered compute and prediction resources available to researchers for free while Microsoft launched an AI for health initiative with data science tools for clinicians. Google launched the COVID public dataset program, while IBM and NVIDIA made AI resources available to digital communities. What started off as an idea between a handful of digital entrepreneurs accelerated into a fully-fledged, API driven digital platform that enables the creation of various digital solutions that could be scaled to combat the coronavirus. Within a month, an API driven platform was built using open source tools with integration into AWS, GCP and Azure. The main feature of the platform is the digital toolbox that offers cloud and AI/ML tools to African digital volunteers for free. This enables the rapid development of digital solutions that can be scaled across the continent.
A DevOps development model was used with a team spread across the entire African continent. Many of the team members that worked frantically for a few months building the platform have never met in person even today. Coordinating thousands of digital volunteers requires an agile and autonomous organisational model through a single and scalable digital platform. The front-end of the CombatCOVID-19.africa platform enables digital volunteers to join projects and events of their interest and volunteer their skills towards a specific outcome. Modern digital tools for continuous delivery of code and open communication like bitbucket and Slack are available to the community. Furthermore, cloud tools and virtual machines are made available for digital volunteers to build microservices and deploy these on containers for reuse across the community.
Today more than 5000 digital volunteers are active on the platform and a number of digital solutions have been created and deployed since April 2020. Examples include TIP Africa, a threat intelligence platform that leverages open source tools such as TorBot and TorCrawl to analyse cyber threats around the continent; Digital Food Parcel System which seeks to find an efficient and scalable way of sourcing food parcel donations and distributing them to communities where they are needed using technology;n and a Digital Culture project that seeks to use digital technologies to allow creatives to collaborate in real time and create music and other forms of art to share in the digital space. Digital volunteers span across more than 200 cities across the world with many Africans in the diaspora. The CombatCOVID-19.africa platform is a non-profit, non-commercial initiative based on the Creative Commons principle. Any intellectual property volunteered by individuals cannot by (re)used for any commercial gain.
Every Wednesday the CombatCOVID-19.africa community gathers virtually to listen to African digital entrepreneurs share their insights on innovations they are working on. These sessions culminated in a virtual symposium which was held on the 12th of August 2020 with over 1000 delegates participating. Topics such as AI driven epidemiology, quantum computing and investments in African digital solutions were covered by experts from the continent and in the diaspora. Furthermore, the CombatCOVID-19.africa community continues to be invited to speak to various stakeholders in the business, Government, multilateral institutions, NGO’s and many others. Insights have been shared with the likes of the World Health Organisation, The African Union, Africa CDC, and UNESCO. As a non-profit and non-commercial platform, the insights shared with stakeholders are meant to share knowledge and inspire confidence in the capability and capacity of Africa.
Our CombatCOVID-19.africa experience has taught us a few important lessons. The first is that Africa has the capability to develop world leading digital solutions. This capability may exist in pockets and maybe public and private investors will nurture this community and find ways to scale its potential. The second lesson is that the most effective solutions to problems on the African continent can come from deliberate, yet fluid collaborative efforts that do not conform to organisational, institutional, country and regional borders. The third lesson is that at the core of the 4th industrial revolution are the digital entrepreneurs whose capability and aspirations will fuel growth, prosperity, and the improvement of peoples’ lives on the continent. African entrepreneurs deserve a fair opportunity to express themselves and lead in creating solutions that are rooted in the African context.
CombatCOVID-19.africa is an example of a community of Africans speaking different languages united around a common cause and contributing their complementary skills to rapidly build meaningful solutions. This Pan-African digital platform will exist well beyond COVID-19 and digital volunteers are already embarking on projects that consider the world in years to come. The digital volunteers of this capable community have shown, with no immediate monetary return, that there is power in a well coordinate ecosystem fuelled by smart and scalable technology. This approach can be used to solve many other problems on the African continent and lay the foundation for the integration of Africa’s humanity in the future global economy. There is no doubt that the future will be a platform driven economy and Africa has the capability to participate and potentially lead the world.