From M-Pesa to Ushahidi: how African tech is fighting the coronavirus


Picture of Samir Abdelkrim
Samir Abdelkrim

Founder of EMERGING Valley, Member of the Digital Strategy Group at the Africa-Europe Foundation and 2020-2021 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Is it possible to ‘hack’ the spread of a pandemic by cutting off its main chain of transmission? African tech innovators are certainly giving it a go. “Made In Africa” tech is pulling out all the stops to contribute to the global battle against COVID-19. From Kenyan Fintech giant, M-Pesa, which makes social distancing easier with its mobile payment technology, to the Ushahidi mobile application, which enables citizens to rally together and share information, to the collective intelligence ‘Hackathons’ that are being organised in the Maghreb – all have been at the heart of combatting this virus.

In Kenya, emergency measures have been in place since 15 March. The aim of these policies was to slow down this deadly epidemic at all costs as it relentlessly spread throughout a state where only 1 in 5 citizens has access to decent health services. In addition to gradually closing the borders, President Uhuru Kenyatta declared the use of mobile payments as a “national priority”, calling on his population to use electronic payments as much as possible in their daily lives.

The objective is clear: reduce the risk of spreading the virus by exchanging potentially contaminated notes. Cash must disappear to make way for mobile payments.

The main telecoms operators in the country are all pitching in too – starting with Safaricom which uses the M-Pesa mobile application. In my book “Startup Lions, at the heart of African Tech” I explain how M-Pesa was born organically (and unexpectedly) from contact with the poorest Kenyan populations who didn’t even have bank accounts. A great many of them used ‘m-banking’ to gain financial independence which led to the M-Pesa service having over 22.6 million users in Kenya in 2019 – almost two-thirds of the adult population. A few hours after the president’s announcement, M-Pesa decided to drastically reduce its usage fees and to remove the daily transaction volume limit across the board in order to increase cash flow.

There are still reasons to be optimistic about African tech innovation

Will COVID-19 inadvertently be the (admittedly forced) trigger to the Kenyan economy becoming entirely cashless? As Africa’s founding country of mobile payments, Kenya certainly has prerequisites in this field. From Nairobi to Kisumu and Mombasa, over 1,200 transactions were performed every second on Africa’s star ‘m-banking’ application in 2018.

However, the situation elsewhere on the continent paints a very different picture. Statistics from Ericsson indicate that, on average, 82% of Africans used mobiles in 2018, but only 6% of them performed mobile payment transactions in their everyday lives. In economies which are still mainly dominated by the informal sector, physical money exchange is predominantly favoured over mobile payment services. This is certainly the case in the country with the highest population in Africa – Nigeria – where over 60% of the population have neither a bank account nor use mobile payment applications.

But there are still reasons to be optimistic about African tech innovation. For instance, in 2008, a community of Kenyan cyber activists made use of open-source platforms to code a mobile application known as Ushahidi (which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili). The goal was to pinpoint any act of violence on an interactive map in the aftermath of a highly contentious election. This solution was the first ‘crisis-mapping’ application in the world and the first open-source software in Africa.

12 years later, in mid-March 2020, Ushahidi saw use worldwide to help fight COVID-19. Italian humanitarian NGOs have made use of the Kenyan solution on a regular basis to report vulnerable and isolated people in northern Italy and Sardinia. This has helped elderly people in precarious situations gain access to medicine and food supplies during the lockdown.

They propose digitising citizen solidarity to mitigate the social consequences of the virus

In Spain, Ushahidi has made it easier for neighbours in the same neighbourhood to help each other and share advice by relaying the hashtag #FrenaLaCurvo (slow down the curve). The same is happening in Peru where the application is being used to tackle contamination by way of awareness and solidarity.

In Africa, Ushahidi is currently being used in Nigeria to gather and verify reliable information about the virus, and to inform people how dangerous the spread is. The application has also been used to identify and report cases of contamination in the giant Kenyan slum of Kibera, Nairobi, in order to facilitate treatment.

And lastly, in Japan, a citizen advocacy group known as ‘SafeCast’ developed a collaborative map on the Ushahidi platform to help ensure equal access to treatment for all infected individuals. This map indicates Japanese hospitals and health clinics which unjustifiably or discriminatorily refuse to screen people for COVID-19 despite their legitimate requests.

Maghreb countries have also seen the development of innovative solutions. In Morocco, the Moroccan Federation of IT Technologies (APEBI) launched “Hackcovid, Moroccan Tech Against Covid-19” – a digital hackathon that networks Moroccan startups which operate in healthcare innovation. They propose digitising citizen solidarity to mitigate the social consequences of the virus and are also developing e-health solutions in rural Morocco and other responses to help the informal sector which has been greatly affected.

All of these projects, from across Africa, demonstrate that the continent has a strong role to play in the struggle against this pandemic

This resulted in over 150 Moroccan projects being put forward, ten of which will be supported by several key accounts so that they have a large, broad impact across the nation. One of the selected projects is a Moroccan start-up which aims to provide hospitals with 3D printers to produce masks, ventilators and valves locally.

In Algeria, the Brenco start-up has set up a free mobile self-diagnosis and case monitoring application called FahS – which means ‘to examine’ in Arabic. Developed in collaboration with the Algerian Ministry of Health, the application helps its users provide information about any symptoms they may have, and then gives them a pre-diagnosis and health advice. Potentially positive cases are encouraged to make themselves known to the authorities and the application will then check up on them in the following days. The information is then collected and uploaded to the administrator’s central version. Brenco’s founder, Karim Brouri, has offered FahS to all affected African countries, free of charge.

Finally, in Tunisia, the “Tunisian Startups” collective, which unites the Tunisian entrepreneurial ecosystem, launched the “HealthTech Challenge – COVID 19” to identify, support and finance Tunisian scientific innovations which are having a direct and immediate impact on the health crisis in the country. The two Tunisian women who started the initiative, Amel Saidane and Wafa B’Chir, explain that: “by bringing together the efforts of project leaders, startups, researchers, domain experts and established economic stakeholders, we are convinced that solutions will emerge”.

All of these projects, from across Africa, demonstrate that the continent has a strong role to play in the struggle against this pandemic. It would be a shame for Europe to overlook this. Innovators from Kenya to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have led the way. Now, more than ever, we should strive to implement digital solutions on a global scale.

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