Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, made global headlines last week with his donation of essential medical supplies amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s perhaps the most high profile example of how private businesses are utilizing their assets and funds for social good amid a devastating outbreak that has pretty much shut down the global economy. In France, luxury group LVMH is making hand sanitizers while China’s Foxconn, which assembles Apple’s iPhones, is making face masks.
In Nigeria, tech startups are beginning to step up too. Fledgling tech companies in Nigeria have been successful in the last few years in helping to reposition the country’s commercial capital, Lagos as Africa’s leading tech hub, particularly when it comes to funding and innovation. Last year local startups raised nearly $650 million, about half of all startup funding in Africa.
But innovative approaches to problem-solving in a crisis maybe the most crucial offering from these young companies. Lifebank, a health startup that finds and delivers blood to patients has turned its attention to seeking critical medical equipment for Covid-19 treatment and has created a national register to track hospitals with working ventilators and respirators. Hotel booking platform Hotels.ng has partnered with hotels to create isolation centers across Nigeria, an added buffer for the country’s limited quarantine facilities.
For its part, Jumia, the pan-African e-commerce giant, has donated face masks to Nigeria’s health ministry and has replicated the gesture in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Uganda and Morocco. Jumia has also offered its logistics network to distribute health products for local authorities.
Some of the support has come in form of targeted funding too. One year-old genomics research startup 54gene has launched a $500,000 fund to boost local testing capacity for coronavirus. It’s a significant move especially given Nigeria’s alarmingly low number of tests: South Africa has tested 100 times more people than Nigeria. Ventures Platform, a local VC firm, has also partnered with the Lagos science and research agency to find and fund innovative tech-based solutions that tackle coronavirus-related issues.
The efforts add to the impact young tech companies are having in Africa’s most populous country—from facilitating financial inclusion and solving perennial electricity problems to plugging gaps in local healthcare—and show how innovative thinking can be applied to easing the burden of the pandemic on Africa’s largest economy and by extension other countries in Africa. This is especially the case amid growing concerns about the level of the outbreak in Nigeria being understated given its low testing numbers.
But there’s also a tinge of irony with Nigerian authorities relying on support from a tech industry that has flourished in spite of the government’s broad lack of support.
Helping the government fight a damaging pandemic might be seen as a low-hanging PR opportunity for some of these startups but ultimately, their actions will impact ordinary Nigerians for whom aid might have been otherwise out of reach. But the startups’ actions will also inadvertently highlight Nigeria’s biggest healthcare shortcomings too: Lifebank’s national register of medical equipment has found fewer than 100 ventilator units across Nigeria.