How tech can be the saviour in corona lockdown

Deaths arising from coronavirus infections are soaring every day as the pandemic spreads to every corner of the planet.

Economies are at a standstill, with key sectors under serious existential threats of extinction. It is feared the virus will bankrupt more people than it kills, as it brings down a number of economies.

What to do? With most nations under either a full or partial lockdown to help contain the virus, governments are calling on people to embrace technology to keep key sectors in operation as monitoring of the disease continues.

In Kenya, Covid-19 is reminding workers that the digital economy is one that best absorbs the shocks of any disease that discourages physical contact and social grouping.

Schools have been closed, court processes halted, tourism paralysed, cash payments reduced, and religious services disrupted as companies now allow employees to work from home.

“Now is the time to rely on the digital economy for solutions that keep life moving during a time like this. We are lucky to have started our digital transformation journey earlier,” says Timothy Oriedo, founder of data firm Predictive Analytics Lab.

Absa Bank Kenya’s chief data officer Hartnell Ndungi says that many sectors did not foresee the current situation, and not all companies will afford to facilitate employees to work from home.

“It is a challenge to power every employee with a laptop and unlimited Internet, especially for SMEs. The probable solution is to classify tasks into critical and non-critical, the later can work remotely. Most companies will have to scale down production and that will affect profits,” he told Digital Business.

While it is hard for data analysts to predict exactly when the disease will disappear, especially in Africa, practising e-learning, telemedicine, videoconferencing, shopping via e-commerce, using digital payments, live-streaming religious services, using robotics in manufacturing and working remotely are some of the remedies in a period of economic lockdown. Unfortunately, African countries are lagging behind on this aspect of operations. However a section of firms and institutions have embraced technology and will fare far better than those who have been slow to adopt the digital space.

“There are so many e-learning platforms for students available in the country, and for free. I personally use edtech solutions such as Google Groups, Open edX and Canvas,” says Prof Bitange Ndemo of the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.

Such platforms allow students to benefit from instructor-led degree and masters programmes, all by the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Boniface Mutunga, a master’s student at Kenyatta University, however, says the comfort that comes with e-learning requires personal discipline and commitment, and Kenya now needs to adopt Virtual Reality gears.

“You need a quiet area to watch live lectures and you need to be punctual. Now that we have a 4G Plus network, I feel it is the right moment for Kenyan universities to start adopting VR gears for these online sessions,” he says.

However, such solutions are not ubiquitous, as they only apply to advanced levels of study, since O-Levels, which teach vernacular languages are left to wait for a cure of the virus.

“Most public primary and preparatory schools in the country are not prepared for e-learning as the facilities don’t exist. This is only happening in developed countries. In Kenya we only have a few private primary schools that have had e-learning programmes for some time. But it will work for universities,” says Mr Ndungi.

But with advances in AI, according to Dr Lillian Wanzare, a computer science lecturer at Maseno University, there is a future possibility of teaching vernacular languages remotely.

“Using Natural Language Processing (NLP), it is a matter of time and local languages get taught to O-level pupils without any teacher’s presence,” she says.

Kenya’s courtroom, which is overdependent on human interaction, is being maimed by the directive on social distancing especially litigation. The traditional filing of court documents, physical court pleadings, lawyer presence and the entire offline nature of work calls for urgent solutions for magistrates, judges, lawyers and their clients.

Since Monday, the wheels of justice have been moving very slowly because court proceedings that attract gatherings have been abolished, but administration of justice, according to founder of Lawyers Hub, Linda Bonyo, can be done remotely.

The Judiciary has issued a memo on filing of cases within the commercial wing. The Law Society of Kenya encouraged members to serve court documents via e-mail while using Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanisms.

“Lawyers are now embracing technology tools such as Calendly to schedule client meetings, Zoom for group calls and Signal as a secure messaging service. To manage our work, we use Patafile and Wakili CMS which are cloud-based,” she says.

E-commerce is benefiting the most from the current situation as people move fast to stock their houses with food and household goods.

Though Kenya has not advanced to the level of drone and robot deliveries, online purchases will certainly spike as the battle against coronavirus gets tougher.

“E-commerce is witnessing an upsurge. Even people who are not tech-savvy now see the benefit of online commerce where you purchase and pay for what you want, and then it is delivered to your house,” notes Mr Ndungi.

Digital transformation, he says, can now be told from many aspects, including religion, now that church and mosque gatherings have been banned.

“Churches like the Consolata Shrine in Westlands, Nairobi has been live-streaming services for a while. Now is a period where worshippers must get prepared to consume the Holy Scriptures together from home, via YouTube or Facebook,” he says.

During this period, the search for online jobs and businesses on search engines has snowballed, as Kenyans look for ways to make more money now that some of their income sources have been erased.

“Those looking for secondary cash sources can get into online forex trade, where real-time monitoring of prices can earn you money,” says Sila Obegi, chief executive of Meta Capital.

He adds that Kenya’s semi cashless system will be key in fighting the virus, noting that mobile transactions via pay bill numbers which became a norm years ago, are the way to go, but that leaves gaps for paper money to be exchanged.

“The cashless loop is only complete if you have Internet banking. You are able to send money from your bank to your mobile money wallet and back. But this is a challenge for rural dwellers who only own the wallet.

“When you send them money, they have to withdraw to use it. There are no many sellers accepting digital payments in such areas. I can only say Kenya is 60 percent cashless right now,” he expounds.

Peer-to-peer payment platforms have gained popularity during this period, but are Kenyans ready to pay via cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ether, Ripple or Litecoin?

“Because digital currencies are prone to price volatility and come with the risk of being scammed, we have a long way to go. They are also complex to explain to 70 percent of Kenyans who live in rural zones,” says Mr Obegi.

Maureen Achieng, a developer in low and no code software platforms, says that videoconferencing that supports many users is the next frontier in finding solutions to global conferences that have all been cancelled due to Covi-19.

“I am working on a mobile and Web-based videoconferencing solution that will enable at least 1,000 people to congregate from any part of the world and discuss global issues,” she says.

Even before the spread of the coronavirus, the Fourth Industrial Revolution was already unfolding, and the current situation can only accelerate it.

“We are treating Covid-19 as a catalyst to digital transformation. It helps all of us understand the future,” Mr Ndungi concludes.


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