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Covid-19 and the youth

- Bob Wekesa

Opportunities in information and communications.

In the words of Roman philosopher, Seneca, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Rather than sit on their laurels lamenting the devastating effects of the pandemic, African youth can spend their energies strategising solutions for personal and societal benefit. Overall, internet-native youth keen on harvesting and harnessing the latent possibilities that Covid-19 portends need to count themselves lucky for being born in the information age. By tapping into opportunities within information and communications, the youth can help convert the internet into a productive infrastructure during Covid-19 and simultaneously tame its negative effects, such as cyber bulling and online fraud.

Opportunities for Africa’s youth

One area of potential entrepreneurship lies within online information, education and communication. The contagious nature of the novel disease necessitates public service information dissemination on a massive scale if behaviour change is to be achieved. The challenge is that much of the information regarding Covid-19 is rendered in technical, complex and scientific language. If Covid-19 jargon – everything from terms such as epidemiology to co-morbidity – is obscure enough for many with formal education, how about for the millions of Africans who do not have formal education?

Although efforts have been made to simplify the information, much more needs to be done. Consider for instance that in Sub-Saharan Africa, the predominant languages into which Covid-19 is communicated are English, French and Portuguese. However, there are 2000-plus indigenous African languages across the continent. While equalising access to information on the pandemic will require massive investments into language resources, such action is important to help elevate information as a weapon with which to fight the pandemic.

The fact that the youth are often more educated and speak more indigenous and dominant foreign languages than older populations is a major asset in this regard. Entrepreneurial youth with linguistic competences, especially transcription and translation skills, have an opportunity to approach potentially interested organisations and establishments with translation projects.

There is and there will be a massive need for informational materials – from posters to mobile phone applications – that are clear and comprehensible. Thus, skills in graphic design for online and printed materials will also continue to be in high demand.

Skills in the information, education and communications fields are also useful in debunking and dispelling the misinformation and disinformation that has accompanied the disease. Youth who are able to fact-check and therefore verify the veracity of information would play a major role in helping communities to separate fact from fiction.

Analysing massive amounts of information and data sets and making them relevant to communities would also be a service that helps mitigate the ill-effects of the pandemic. Skills in scanning and curating traditional and social media and packaging data and information from multiple sources for easy and convenient consumption will be needed. Indeed, some of this information is being disseminated via online platforms, such as webinars. This suggests that the many organisations convening video and teleconferences need several services. They may also need editing services to repackage the online discussions into easily viewable, listened-to and readable formats. For instance, organisations may need transcription services to convert information from audio formats to readable text such as Microsoft Word documents.

Beyond entrepreneurship focused on behaviour change, information and communication skills can prove beneficial to youth and society in matters of trade. Particularly important is information and communication about the demand and supply of goods and services directly linked to the health and medical dimensions of the pandemic.

For instance, in the short span of the pandemic, we have seen lots of products produced locally in various countries, in what has been labelled “science-based entrepreneurial businesses”. In some countries, innovative youth have managed to manufacture kits and equipment. These range from personal protective equipment, diagnostic equipment, and, clinical care equipment and products. Through online knowledge transfer and information sharing, youth in a country or community that has already produced useful equipment or products can help their counterparts in another country or community to replicate their innovations.

How can Africa’s youth tap into these opportunities?

Entrepreneurial youth competent in the abovementioned skills can ask themselves a couple of questions as they develop ideas towards actualisation. Which are the organisations interested in Covid-19 messaging in indigenous languages? Which are the organisations whose work necessitates mass communications? And which are the organisations that are fighting misinformation and disinformation? These and related questions would help the youth to be targeted while developing their entrepreneurship ideas.

The answers to some of the questions lie in identifying organisations seeking to sensitise and create awareness in local communities. National and local governments, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), media establishments, medical organisations (from pharmaceuticals to public health bodies), and more, all need to communicate to communities in languages and formats they understand. Tech companies such as Google, Wikipedia, WebMD, Bing, Microsoft and Facebook would give consideration to proposals that help generate local Covid-19 content. Telecommunication companies would also lend an ear, given that their businesses revolve around expanding the reach of their services. Furthermore, road, air and water transport companies would see the value in innovations that help display information in visually powerful formats. In a nutshell, any organisation that deals with large numbers of people is a potential client for entrepreneurial youth in the fields of information, education and communications.

In terms of the demand and supply of goods needed during the pandemic, because Africa has generally been at the tail end of the infection’s trajectory, African youth entrepreneurs can study what is happening in the countries that have battled the pandemic and learn from their success and failure factors. For instance, which products and services were most in need at the various stages of the pandemic in China, the US and Europe? It is feasible that the products and services that were in demand in Europe and the North America will eventually be required in Africa assuming that infections will spike? A basic skill in these regards is analytical internet research capabilities coupled with market analyses and surveys.

Related to linkages between countries is the fact that Africans are generally known to have weathered many epidemics in the past. Indeed, the 2014 Ebola virus disease outbreak has been described as having many similarities with Covid-19. It has been pointed out that small, informal businesses in the DR Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea which endured the Ebola outbreak managed to survive by adapting to the circumstances. These experiences are lessons learned: There is potential for online connections to be established between entrepreneurs in African countries with their counterparts in other locations across the continent who are facing a disease outbreak on this scale for the first time.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, entrepreneurial African youth need to see every challenge posed by the pandemic as an opportunity and move on to either leverage the skills they already have or rapidly acquire the necessary skills as a means of addressing the challenge. Indeed, a simple table or grid with columns and rows for challenge, opportunity and skills would suffice as a means of pairing every problem with a solution.

Dr Bob Wekesa is partnerships, research and communications coordinator at The African Centre for the Study of the United States, Wits University.

This article is part of the African Digital Diplomacy series, published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University and featured on Africa Portal - a research repository and an expert analysis hub on African affairs.