With drones, masks innovators keep Covid-hit economies afloat

Export Processing Zone (EPZ) staff make face masks and personal protective equipment at EPZ Athi River to be used in fighting Covid-19. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

From contracts such as disinfecting markets and schools to making hand sanitisers, some traders are making a kill.

Ghanaian pilot Eric Acquah started a drone company in 2017 to spray crops with pesticides, but when coronavirus hit the West African country he found a new mission - saving lives.

The company has used 20 drones to disinfect about 38 open-air markets in Ghana, spraying a couple of acres in minutes, a job that would take a dozen people several hours, and there are now also plans to use them to disinfect classrooms, said Acquah.

“We targeted the market areas because in Africa they are open-air and always overpopulated. So we thought if the virus is going to spread fast it will be from them,” said Acquah, who was paid by local authorities to spray the markets.

“Just closing the borders and quarantining the whole country wouldn’t make sense unless there is mass disinfection of places where people gather in larger numbers,” the founder of AcquahMeyer Drone Tech told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Border closures

The markets have since re-opened, with everyone wearing masks and social distancing, and traders and buyers said they felt safer, said Acquah, who is lobbying private donors for funds to disinfect other public areas - at about Sh1,500 ($15 per acre).

Acquah is just one of a host of African innovators helping poor households adapt to and survive the pandemic, which has so far infected more than 416,000 people in Africa with more than 11,300 deaths, according to a Reuters tally based on government statistics and WHO data.

As job losses mount and incomes plunge due to coronavirus lockdowns and border closures, many African countries risk spikes in poverty and hunger, food experts have warned.

In Benin, a dozen r, with financial and technical support from a government-United Nations task force launched in April.

“Because it hasn’t been easy to import goods into the country, we have to take a hard look at what we can produce locally,” said Claude Bona, head of Seme City, the government’s innovation and entrepreneurship centre, co-leading the project.

“I think people are slowly taking the measure of what’s happening here in Africa with innovation, and how it can be a very powerful tool.”

Atingan is one start-up which received backing from the task force to adapt to the crisis, switching from making eco-friendly stoves to handwashing stations operated by pedals so users do not have to touch anything.

They have sold more than 600 units for about Sh10,000 ($100) each to clients that include the United Nations, said Franck Zanhoundaho, who founded the company with his brother.

“All of the artisans, all the welders in the country have started to make them,” he said, adding that the simple metal frame is easily replicable and that they have shared the design to encourage wider production.

The production of handwashing stations has enabled the small company to survive the crisis, he added.

The Alodo Initiative - a group of fashion designers - is another project receiving support from the task force to rapidly scale up its work, both to bolster the fight against Covid-19 and minimise its negative economic impact.

It is producing masks from locally available fabrics, which were tested in a lab to ensure their effectiveness in preventing coronavirus transmission. They have sold millions, some of which the government bought to distribute in schools.

Wary customers

“The textile sector often takes a hit when there is an economic crisis. And it’s a sector that employs a lot of workers,” said Charlemagne Amoussou, President of the Association of Fashion Designers of Benin.

“This local production breathed life into the textile sector in Benin, and I think that almost all the tailors, all the designers had work.”

With coronavirus cases still rising in Africa, digital networks have proven crucial in keeping economic activity going.

As disease-wary customers shun open-air markets, food sellers using Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have seen a surge in demand, said Rumbidzai Mbambo, 27, founder of Quickfresh, one of the newest Zimbabwean online grocery start-ups.

Mbambo set up the company in April after seeing that a government-imposed lockdown had left smallholder farmers stranded with fresh produce while people stuck at home could not buy food.

“The pandemic has redefined our way of life and our business model suits the low-touch new (environment),” she said, adding that the business has attracted more than 60 clients in its first two months.

Paida Moyo ventured into farming herbs just a few months earlier and feared she would have to bin her produce.

But linking up with QuickFresh has saved her business.

“We did not lose anything and we’re not in debt,” said the 24-year-old, who is expanding to grow tomatoes and cabbages. “I was a bit worried but not for long when QuickFresh came into the picture. They rescued us.”

In Kenya, charities are boosting economies in poor communities by using a blockchain-backed local currency to provide slum-dwellers with emergency aid on their mobile phones which they can spend on local goods and services.

Grace Hellen, a 53-year-old tailor in Nairobi’s Mukuru informal settlement, saw her monthly income plunge when the virus struck in March as customers stopped coming to her shop. The Sh600 ($6) a week she receives supplements the small stipend of Sh1,900 ($19) she earns as a volunteer community healthcare worker and enables her to buy essentials like kerosene for cooking and beans.

“Life would be more difficult without this, not only for me but the community as a whole because many people are going through the same challenges,” said the mother of five.

The project was set up by the Danish Red Cross and Kenya-based foundation Grassroots Economics in 2019 and expanded to respond to help people whose income has been hit by the coronavirus crisis.  

[Thomson Reuters Foundation]