How young Africans find innovative solutions to challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic

Members of a youth group comprised of some entrepreneurs who have lost their livelihoods due to the economic slump caused by countrywide restrictions imposed on movement of people and goods, in a bid to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, manufacture hand-made personal protective equipment (PPE) at a shed in Waithaka, a suburb of Nairobi. Image: Getty, Tony Karumba
Members of a youth group comprised of some entrepreneurs who have lost their livelihoods due to the economic slump caused by countrywide restrictions imposed on movement of people and goods, in a bid to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, manufacture hand-made personal protective equipment (PPE) at a shed in Waithaka, a suburb of Nairobi. Image: Getty, Tony Karumba

June is Youth Month in South Africa, built around commemorations of the brave students in Soweto on 16 June 1976 who rose up against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

The same day is also the African Union’s International Day of the African Child. Both these occasions inspire dialogue around issues affecting children and youth. As we reflect on this date and its significance, the following question comes to mind: ‘How have young people in Africa responded to the many challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic?’

It has been more than four decades since the 1976 Soweto Uprising and the agency of young people in Africa remains as powerful as it was then. The youth are no strangers to momentous movements for democracy and human rights in Africa, which have shaped policies and led to regime changes. Examples include the Arab Spring (2010-2012) in North Africa in response to oppressive regimes, Yen a Marre movement (2011-2012) opposed to Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade’s hold on power, exacerbated by his decision to run for a third term in June 2011, the Sudan Uprising (2018-2019) pushing for the ousting of Omar al-Bashir, the ‘ Not Too Young to Run’ campaign in Nigeria that constitutionally lowered age limits for political office (2018) and the ‘ Fees Must Fall’ (2015 and 2016) protests for free, quality and decolonised education in South Africa.

Most recently, youth across Africa have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including disruption in education, exacerbated by the digital divide (across urban-rural and gender dimensions). But young people have responded with energy and innovation to tackle the interconnected challenges of the novel coronavirus.

Projections by the World Health Organization suggest that between 29 million and 44 million people in sub-Saharan Africa could contract the virus, with between 83 000 and 190 000 deaths should the virus not be contained. Africa needs to adjust to the ‘new normal’ of face masks, social distancing, travel bans, frequent washing of hands and improved sanitisation. It needs to find new ways of doing things while addressing underlying socio-economic issues.

Prevailing challenges for youth

Following the first detection of COVID-19 in Africa in March, most governments shut down schools and universities in the hopes of curbing the spread of the virus. Young people remain uncertain regarding the full resumption of the academic year.

Countries such as Senegal, South Africa and Uganda previously made efforts to reopen schools under strict health and safety conditions. However, decades-long challenges of inadequate infrastructure, and poor health and sanitation facilities in under-resourced schools have led to a lack of preparedness to adapt to these new conditions and are exacerbating a sense of inequality.

While Senegal and Uganda have since postponed the reopening of schools indefinitely, owing to lack of readiness, South Africa reopened schools (for physical learning) on 8 June 2020 for grades 7 (final year of primary school) and 12 (final year of high school), despite remaining challenges particularly in previously disadvantaged communities. In addition, 33.3% of students in universities (mainly post-graduates, students requiring time in labs and senior medical students) where requested to return to campus. The remainder of the student population remains at home. Students who are not yet permitted to return to physical learning have to resort to home-schooling, like most students in the rest of the world, through digital online learning platforms. However, this remains particularly challenging for African students owing to the ‘digital divide’. This refers to the uneven distribution and access to information and communication technologies, symptomatic of broader socio-economic inequalities that exist in African societies.

According to the Brookings Foresight Africa 2020 Report , internet penetration, quality, and affordability in Africa are very low in comparison to the rest of the world. Internet penetration in 2019 averaged 39.6% in Africa compared to 62.7% globally. What are the implications for internet-based learning?

Marginalisation of youth within the digital divide is seen through the unequal access to quality broadband infrastructure and internet coverage, hampering them from participating in online learning. Furthermore, there is the lack of skills and access to affordable data. From a gendered perspective, more women than men experience a sense of exclusion from online learning. Paula Gilbert from the International Telecommunication Union assessed that the proportion of women (22.6%) using the internet in Africa is 11.2% lower than men (33.8%), based on data from 2019.

In response to some of these limitations, South Africa, for example, has seen a newly forged public-private partnership between government and network providers such as MTN, Telkom and Vodacom. This has been through zero-rated online platforms which host academic material that can be accessed for free. Additionally, universities have collaborated with network providers to facilitate disbursements of data to students. Both universities and government have made provision to provide laptops to students who do not have computers at home. While commendable, these solutions will remain unsustainable and unscalable unless the underlying issues of inequality are addressed. Government, alongside the private sector, needs to invest urgently in quality infrastructure and skills training.

Youth-led responses to COVID-19

Despite the litany of difficulties, this pandemic has emboldened the resolve of Africa’s youth who are using innovation to provide solutions to their communities and countries.

According to Sobel Aziz Ngom, founder of the Social Change Factory in Senegal, youth have been involved in the mass distribution of personal protective equipment, assistance with food distribution in vulnerable communities and dissemination of information that promotes a bottom-up approach in addressing the needs of communities. “There are no pre-defined answers to COVID-19. Young people can rise up and enhance their voices and action, especially as there is a reinvigorated openness to innovation and digitisation,” said Ngom.

The Tiwale Women’s Center For Education and Entrepreneurship, a youth-led organisation in Malawi, has started mass production of personal protective equipment such as face masks. The organisation supports huge numbers of poverty-stricken women in Malawi through education, microloans, and skills training, and is further leveraging the skills of its beneficiaries and unemployed graduates through this new initiative . The masks are either donated to essential workers and offices in Malawi or sold to the public to help support its programmes.

Moussa Kondo, Country Director of Accountability Lab Mali,7 highlights a successful campaign known as Campagne Coronavirus CivActs . The campaign aims to track fake news and debunk myths about COVID-19 using local languages, while ensuring transparency on the use of state resources by mapping contributions by development partners and state expenditure on COVID-19 responses. Kondo notes that “following money from donors and financial operations around COVID-19 ensures that leaders follow appropriate procedures even in times of emergencies”. This ensures accountability and tracks instances of irregular expenditure of funds meant to alleviate the effects of the pandemic in Mali.

Youth co-founded digital rewards web-app Zlto, based in South Africa, leverages blockchain technology to promote and enhance positive behaviour such as health, well-being, volunteerism, entrepreneurship and positive citizenry. In the age of COVID-19, Dr Ayodele Odusola, a UN Development Programme Representative, observes that the Zlto community is promoting safe, healthy actions to fight the virus while rewarding acts such as handwashing and caring for loved ones. The platform provides access to free courses on health, hygiene, life skills and resource management, with linkages to coronavirus prevention information. The rewards are redeemable across 1,000 vendors such as Shoprite, Mr Price and medical consultants nationwide. The coupons can also be used for skills training in RLabs Youth Cafés within the Western Cape province.

This global pandemic has exposed a range of challenges that curtail youth development. Nevertheless, youth in Africa continue to mobilise against these challenges with a sense of agility and creativity. They are paying homage to the class of 1976 through their unrelenting fight against inequality. They are leveraging their skills and innovation to bring about meaningful change, contrary to the widespread portrayal of youth as passive citizens, susceptible to political manipulation.

Africa should continue to create enabling environments for youth development, participation and leadership. Action-oriented and scalable interventions, implementation and reporting must be the starting priorities.