Technology is fundamental to Africa’s economic recovery post-COVID-19

By Chen Lei, President of Huawei Southern Africa Region.

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic at the beginning of this year, organisations across the planet began to shift into action. But as critical as it was to react appropriately, it has also been important to proactively prepare for the next phase.

At Huawei, we are aware of the massive effect of the pandemic, as well as how seriously communities would be affected. However, we are also conscious that as well as protecting lives, we need to help lay the foundation for the next stage of society’s technological advancement – the Fourth Industrial Revolution. I’ve been inspired by a recent YouTube video of young South African dancer Hlumelo, who has been under lockdown in his home township of Gugulethu. A member of the Zama Dance School, Hlumelo has not let the lockdown hold him back, and has continued practising his steps for the moment when he and his friends can perform together again.

Similarly, during the Chinese lockdown, members of the Shanghai ballet continued to practise – wearing facemasks – for their upcoming performance of Swan Lake. They took precautions, but remained focused on the next phase of their development.

Chen Lei – President, Huawei Southern Africa Region

This reminds me of a saying from a Chinese poem that “Good honing gives a sharp edge to a sword. Bitter cold adds keen fragrance to plum blossom.” It implies that preparation is essential to being effective, and that hardship can shape ultimate success. Indeed, chance favours the prepared mind.

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We understand that ICT has a great role to play in terms of keeping us all connected during lockdown, quarantine and social isolation. But technology is also fundamental to economic recovery for Africa.

Now that we have spent several weeks with shuttered schools and locked-down businesses, our conversation is turning to how to reopen the economy. It is becoming increasingly clear that the way to do that is not to rush back to the same busy, concentrated work and social environments we had before.

When we reopen, communities and workplaces will have to continue practising social distancing. We will continue to rely on high-speed connectivity to bind us together. In many cases, ICT networks support the fight against COVID-19, but also the evolution of human society itself.

During the pandemic, once Huawei had secured our people and our operations, we looked at how we could support our business partners on the African continent through our core competences in the ICT sector. We were fortunate to be able to assist African organisations with social distancing through our technologies.  

The video conferencing systems we provided in some African countries enabled information sharing domestically and experience exchange internationally between epidemic prevention experts in China and Africa. 

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Our remote video conferencing systems have helped medical institutions communicate more efficiently. We have also implemented an AI-based diagnosis solution in several medical institutions. CT scan reviews can now be completed in two minutes, 80% faster, in a race with time, critical for saving lives.

Huawei will continue using our core information and communication capabilities to support Africa’s epidemic control efforts. 

When the dust settles, and we begin to arrive at the much-heralded “new normal”, we will have seen the immense potential for ICT to build social cohesion.

A new business model is taking shape across sectors, one characterised by remote work, distance education, remote healthcare, online shopping and mobile money. These business models span transportation, security, finance, medicine, education and entertainment.

This new paradigm is driven by vastly greater data consumption, facilitated by the mass connectivity of 4G/5G technology.

Governments are coming to understand the need to prioritise ICT as a necessity. As a recent White paper by Deloitte-Shanghai noted, the COVID-19 pandemic is seeing 5G transform healthcare response mechanisms to become digital, accurate and smart.

The pandemic has brought home to policymakers the importance of ICT in national development. This should accelerate the establishment of national data centres, optical fibre networks and communication base stations. 

This kind of “big network” deployment also presents a historic opportunity for Africa to use ICT to catch up with, and overtake other nations in terms of human development and quality of life for all its citizens.

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We are seeing the first signs of digital transformation not just in healthcare systems, but across entire economies, and society itself. 

ICT platforms are likely to provide the foundation of Africa’s future economy. The key is to continue honing and perfecting them, expanding their use even now, so that once the lockdown ends, we can recover more quickly. 

As the old poem notes, good honing does indeed give a sharp edge to a sword. Like Hlumelo and the dancers of the Shanghai ballet, we should spend this time honing our abilities. When dawn arrives – as it surely will –  let it find us well prepared to seize the day.

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