For more than a year, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc around the world and connectivity has become more crucial than ever. The ICT sector heroically rose to the challenge, working around the clock to create innovative solutions so that people could continue to connect, earn, learn and access healthcare, whilst maintaining a ‘safe’ social distance.
Mark Townsend, CEO of Liquid Intelligent Technologies Zambia, shares his perspectives on the role ICT has played in aiding recovery.
There was a sudden and urgent demand for digital services and the ICT sector rose to the challenge, ICT has been indispensable in enabling countries to function and start adapting to a new world. There are four key areas the ICT sector is helping countries recover – enabling remote access, education, healthcare and the economy.
Enabling Remote Access
Existing cable and wireless infrastructure have allowed people to work and study remotely, from home rather than on-site. This would not have been possible a decade or so earlier, the infrastructure simply didn’t exist. We’re proud to have helped build it piece by piece, city by city, country to country, land to sea. Today there are thousands of kilometres of fibre across Africa, including the 100, 000 km managed by Liquid.
This vast pan-African network, including multiple data centres and wireless, made it easier to quickly connect across the continent. For example, a system needed in Zambia could be facilitated through a data centre in Cape Town, Nairobi or Lagos. It also allowed fairly robust, uninterrupted connection anywhere along the network. On Liquid’s network, if a cable is cut, traffic can be rerouted, reducing redundancy.
However, the existing infrastructure is not adequate to meet the massively increased and growing demand and there is a huge disparity between countries. The ICT sector needs to continue to innovate and upscale to effectively meet the demand for high-speed internet across a much wider geography.
Education and Healthcare
Without ICT, education could have ground to a halt with educational institutions forced to close their doors. Internet access – through mobile and wireless – helped keep large numbers of students learning and helped develop skills across industries. In Zambia, we collaborated with the Ministry of Education to provide free access to resources for learners. Even with children back at school, this education bundle has remained very popular to use for homework. Across the continent, there has been enormous growth in online education.
ICT has also allowed rapid development and innovation in healthcare – from telemedicine to service delivery and vaccine roll-outs. It has provided the means for the government to communicate vital health messages.
Human connection is integral to health and mental well-being. ICT has kept people connected, through social media and messaging apps, even when forced to socially distance. Our unlimited social bundles became incredibly popular during the pandemic, as did the Netflix bundle.
The thought of people being isolated, particularly when they are ill, is appalling. Early on Liquid installed internet in Zambia’s COVID-19 centres, so that patients and staff had free access and the ability to stay in touch.
The ICT sector has helped power economies during the pandemic by enabling entrepreneurs, SMEs and corporates to continue to do business.
Around 75% of Africa’s population are under the age of 30. This young, tech-savvy population are the entrepreneurs of the future. Several ICT companies, including Liquid, have invested in developing more than 600 innovation hubs across the continent, giving students free access to develop and create new products and solutions.
The growth of the ICT sector at this time has provided employment and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Small businesses are the lifeblood of many African economies. Providing cost-effective, efficient digital services during the pandemic has enabled these SMEs to stay in business and some to grow. We’ve been on the ground working with SMEs for a long time and we understand their needs. Unlike big corporations and multinationals with IT departments or in-house support, SMEs are often weighed down by manual systems and/or trying to run a business on a consumer network.
Through e-commerce and online marketing, the ICT sector has allowed small businesses to get onto a global platform and compete with established players. When you’re available and visible on the internet the opportunity to grow is massive.
Now is a time that businesses need to continue to invest to be ready for the post-pandemic world. We predict a boom in travel once movement is less restricted; the ICT sector is building capability so that the tourism sector has digital resources in place as things are unlikely to ever go back to normal. For example, by providing video and voice solutions to a fishing company in Zambia, Liquid is enabling them to connect closely with their customers in Germany and New York and remain top of the ‘bucket list’ when they start planning their next trip.
The same for manufacturing. Through e-commerce and the digital marketplace, the ICT sector enables African and Middle East companies to sell locally produced goods and services anywhere in the world.
The digital economy brings certain security risks and whilst we haven’t seen major breaches yet, the potential is there and the ICT sector is stepping up to provide cybersecurity. It’s up to businesses to ensure they include this as they continue their digital transformation.
Across Africa and the Middle East, technology is helping countries develop, grow and recover from the impact of COVID-19. Yet only around 30% of Africans currently have internet access. For a stronger recovery, for Africa to take its rightful place on the world stage, requires government, civil society and the private sector to work together to build capability and skills.