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How startups can effectively help fight the deadliest epidemic the world is facing

Francesca Ferrario
16th Jan 2015
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Among 2015 resolutions, not forgetting about last year’s problems should be on the top of the list. Ebola makes less noise on news now, but it is still a sad and on-going reality. Not only does it sweep lives away, but it also attacks dreams and opportunities.

Business does not remain immune. The most affected West African countries (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) have suffered drastically due to the impact of Ebola on virtually every economic sector. From agriculture to mining and banking to tourism, the fear of contamination has paralyzed activities.


Ebola_2014_outbreak_map_of_Guinea,_Liberia,_and_Sierra_Leone

The risk of overflow to nearby countries seems very low, especially in Nigeria and Senegal. However, a remedy to stem the epidemic has not been found yet, and any country is at risk of contamination. On a very small scale, Ebola has reached the USA, Europe, South Asia and other countries.

Blogger Arshad Chowdhury has underlined that regardless of geographical location, countries with poor medical infrastructure are at higher risk of contamination due to the rapid diffusion of the virus. The simple fear the virus provokes has had a great impact in shaping economic plans. Vulnerable countries become less economically attractive, and more likely to be excluded from new business opportunities. They could become ‘bugs’ in the world economic system, altering it with negative consequences for people and businesses.

For this reason, many are helping West Africa stem the spread of the disease. The tech community is also taking part in this, but finding viable solutions is not easy.

We will have a quick look at the way technology has been helping tackle the effects of the virus, and sketch possible avenues it can take to maximize its impact.

Elie Canure, from the West-African based technology company Code Innovation, wrote that many hackathons have been organized to implement tech solutions for people affected by the virus. However, interactions among them are extremely limited. Coordination and exchange of information are the first fundamental steps toward building viable solutions in cases of emergency. Failing to acknowledge this suggests inability to understand the problem from the point-of-view of the victims, who want effective support regardless of where it comes from. Code Innovation sent an open Ebola Hackathon Index to share contents and information, but they had very limited feedback.

Co-founder of Microsoft Corporation and philanthropist Paul Allen sent 8,000 smartphones to West Africa to improve communication among medical staff. However, 3G and 4G in West Africa are very limited, especially in rural areas. This makes smartphones an ineffective means of communication.

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Cases like Ebola teach us that successful technology is not only about having a great idea that stands out. When it comes to humanitarian crises, technology is about humility and pragmatism. Start ups that want to collaborate should re-define the word ‘success’ as an almost ego-less fulfillment.

Systems like mHero, a free SMS system that allows different healthcare staff to communicate on mobile phones, have become popular because they aim to bridge gaps where the most basic and urgent needs – such as communication and information – are lacking.

Bitcoin Against Ebola is a non-profit initiative from the Ghanaian startup Beam, which allows saving over 85% on fee transactions when making donations for Ebola-affected regions.

The first lesson that the tragedy of Ebola has taught the tech world is that “collective involvement” is a primary keyword. Solutions require joint efforts to be developed, and should be as much accessible as possible.

Other startups like OncoSynergy and Xenex developed OS2966, a drug that could potentially treat Ebola, and a virus-zapping robot that uses lights to clean infected rooms, respectively. They work from a strictly medical angle and are undoubtedly relevant. The former has so far raised $3.8 million for its research and recently crowdfunded $10,000 for further clinical testing of OS2966. There is much hope that these solutions will work.

It is important, however, to look beyond the contingency of the crisis. A possible perspective to look at how technology can effectively help stem the effects of Ebola is to see at its long-term impact. Eradicating the virus is obviously crucial for the current emergency, but the idea of “support” consists also in providing a structure where the countries affected can re-build their future.


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Mhero and Bitcoins Against Ebola are systems that can outlive the Ebola emergency. Mobile phone-based apps have shown to be the most marketable in African countries. Frontline SMS enables NGOs to communicate with areas that lack internet; M-Farm allows farmers to receive updates about real market prices of products; and the colossal M-pesa allows money transactions via SMS. Mhero, which emerged specifically for the Ebola emergency, could outlive the crisis and keep helping the medical sector. Similarly, Bitcoin Against Ebola can keep functioning as a vehicle to reduce transaction fees on charitable donations.

Support from entrepreneurship, however, should not be limited to services. William Reide Dennis II, the Active Director of the Business Startup Center Monrovia, in Liberia, stated that much funding is flowing to his country to help it come out of the emergency. This money can be used to make jump startLiberian entrepreneurship. In collaboration with SPARK, they established the Ebola Business Case, where local entrepreneurs supply medication, rice, scrub uniforms for health workers and wood to build treatment units.

Helping West African countries stem the virus and end the emergency is in the interest of the whole world. Technology is not a straightforward solution, but can have a huge impact if developed through collaboration, information sharing and forward thinking to post-crisis time. Ebola is one of those monsters who remind us that there is no definitive destruction if we pro-actively and mindfully look for reconstruction.

Let Liberian singers have the final words on this. The lyric provides basic information on the virus, how to prevent its diffusion and how not to lose faith.


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