42% of people in sub-Saharan Africa live on less than $1.90 a day. As the pandemic slowly progresses throughout the continent, with most of the 35,000+ Covid-19 cases concentrated in North Africa and South Africa, a group of MIT students decided to host an “Africa Takes on Covid-19” challenge last weekend. It was the third in a series of MIT-led hackathons designed to create solutions to address critical needs during the Covid-19 crisis.
More than 200 participating teams were selected though the https://covid19challenge.mit.edu application website, with collectives from around the world—drawing from universities, industry, government, and NGOs, among others—volunteering to help create tech driven solutions to address the most critical unmet needs caused by the Covid-19 outbreak across the continent.
Benjamin Boutboul, an MIT Sloan MBA who will be graduating next month was one of the hackathon’s main organizers. He told TRUE Africa why he took on such a big challenge, and how he managed to make it happen in a couple of weeks. “Having participated in the previous MIT Covid-19 Challenge called ‘Beat the Pandemic,’ which was mostly focused on domestic US issues, I was eager to re-create this experience and community to design solutions specifically targeted to Africa. With over 1,300 participants and 300 mentors from over 100 countries (including 44 from Africa), ‘Africa Takes on Covid-19’ was a huge success, and I cannot wait to see the participants take their ideas to action.”
In order to make it all happen over the May 1-3 weekend, Boutboul and his team of MIT student organizers leaned heavily on the global “MIT Africans” WhatsApp group, but they also tapped into personal networks and relationships that organizers had with friends and associates at other universities, companies, and institutions that care about fighting Covid-19 in Africa.
Halle Rubera, a 2019 graduate of Wellesley College, is from Nairobi. Currently working for an education non-profit in East Africa, she chose to compete in the “Enabling Work and Supporting Livelihoods” track. Her motivation was clear. “I was eager to collaborate with engineers, public policy, health and fintech experts,” she wrote in the Slack channel that was dedicated to participants.
Another participant, who goes by Noya, is a student at Harvard. “I have seen how the Covid-19 pandemic is playing out in India and the USA,” she wrote, “I am quite concerned as to what may happen to Africa, if the best of care is not taken. I have a huge interest in education, especially medical education and training, being an entrepreneur in this area. In the last MIT Covid-19 pandemic hackathon I had formed a team with the title ‘Lightning Knowledge Sharing’ because I wanted information out to everybody instantly.”
Mooketsi Bennedict Tekere is a serial tech entrepreneur based in Gaborone, Botswana. The “Africa Takes on Covid-19” hackathon, which took place on Zoom, was promoted mostly via WhatsApp, but as soon as it went live in the morning of May 1st, the hackathon’s Slack channels started serving as a professional network for some participants. Tekere said he was “looking at partnering with data-driven technology startups in East Africa and Southern Africa.”
Participant Rakesh Gohel, the Canadian co-founder of JUTEQ Inc, which builds software solutions for public and private organizations, said that this was his third challenge aiming at helping people who have been impacted by Covid-19. His team created a pan-Canadian voice and text automated chatbot for self-assessment flow, updates and tips for isolation and prevention. He chose to compete in the “Strengthening Referral Systems” track.
Genevieve Mbama, who lives and works in Nigeria as the founder and CEO of Novedad Insights & Solutions, a start-up providing digital technology, business solutions and consulting services, received her MBA in 2010 as an MIT Sloan Fellow. She opted for the “Getting Patient Samples to Labs for Analysis” track, because she was “hoping to contribute to completing the cycle that goes from getting and sending samples to recording test results to communicating and accessing those test results.”
For Eleanor Thompson, a public interest lawyer, and her teammate Dr Yakama Jones, it was their first time participating in a hackathon. Their team, which is based in Sierra Leone, proposed a system for making continued access to essential goods easier and safer. Relying on the USSD protocol, as well as on SMS, Interactive Voice Response, traditional media and community structures, the idea behind their project is to identify and report price hiking and abuse by traders and delivery persons.
From the start, the judges were very clear on the evaluation criteria. Presenting teams were told to focus on demonstrating that their solution was strong on impact, innovation, implementation and presentation. Mentors were identified throughout the broader MIT ecosystem and beyond. Participants were also able to sign up for pitch practices, so long as they did it via a Google sheet.
Aminana Kane, the CEO of Orange Sierra Leone who received her MBA from MIT Sloan in 2013, was a judge on the “Reducing Community Transmission” track. Soon after the 30 winners—three for each of the ten tracks—were announced ahead of the prize presentations in the afternoon of Sunday, May 3rd, we interviewed her via email.
“I’ve just concluded two plus hours of listening to pitches,” she said. “It was fascinating to see how the teams came up with concrete ideas in such a short amount of time. I found the overall level of proposals very good, as people understood the constraints of the continent, and crafted solutions that were scalable. Though there was an over-representation of app ideas, some of the top teams thought about combining basic products and tech to solve issues.”
Ali Diallo, the former global programs manager at the MIT Legatum Center who is now CEO at UNITED, was a judge on the “Combating Misinformation” track. That track was considered important because of the misinformation on the causes and management of Covid-19 globally. Some people have come to think that the disease is altogether not real, threatening necessary preparedness and response mechanisms. Identifying solutions that can be deployed to get people the helpful accurate information they need has become crucial.
Diallo said he gave a lot of his time over the weekend because of some words that MIT President L. Rafael Reif famously said: “The world counts on MIT to help invent the future.” Diallo feels that the hackathon proved that MIT is counting on Africa to help invent the future and that the continent has responded in a beautiful way. “The Covid-19 challenge has been a unique opportunity to discover practical applications of high-impact innovations,” he added. “Contributing to this challenge as a judge was a truly inspiring experience and I got to meet so many great entrepreneurs who believe in the power of innovation.”
Perhaps one of the strongest messages from this hackathon came from keynote speaker Dr. David Moinina Sengeh, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education. A Harvard graduate in engineering sciences, Sengeh received his PhD in the biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab in 2016. He has helped the Sierra Leone government perfect the use of drones for surveillance in monitoring movements during lockdown, and he mentioned that innovators should build solutions with the assumption that government will collaborate.
“It’s really important to build for state of the art without making assumptions about where Africa is or what is possible in Africa,” he said. “If it’s an app, build for an app; if you’re building for SMS, build for SMS; if you’re building for USSD, build for USSD. Remember that a good design principle for state of the art is to build hybrid systems, so your app should work on the web, it should work on mobile, USSD and SMS.”
The winners are:
– Track A: Getting Patient Samples to Labs for Analysis. PoolParty, PathPort, Covistics
– Track B: Strengthening Referral Systems. Connecting Africa, COVcast, Channel B Track 3
– Track C: Empowering the Health Workforce. CoWell, CHIIN, Co-Radio
– Track D: Readiness for Potential Surges. Moyo, Sanipak, Covic Care
– Track E: Sustaining Primary Care During Covid-19. Challengers, Birthing Bridge, Helima Health
– Track F: Energizing Healthcare. PrioOne, SCADA for Africa, Sollux
– Track G: Preventing Community Transmission. Testing for the Future, Team Ubuntu, WaterWorks
– Track H: Production of Essential Supplies. HV20, Barakoa, Ripple
– Track I: Enabling Work and Supporting Livelihoods. Save the Now, Sebenza, Usawa
– Track J: Combating Misinformation. VetAfrica, AltLearn, MLP Rocket