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COVID-19 Pandemic: A Catalyst for Local Innovations and Change in the Telecommunication Sub-Sector


The COVID-19 pandemic has affected society as a whole and impacted nearly all the sectors of the economy, including the telecommunications sub-sector. In Africa, the pandemic has, on a positive note, spurred innovations that could chart a path for future tech-based activities.

Kenya’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector has expanded by 23 per cent over the last decade, with an annual growth rate of about 10.8 per cent from 2016, attributable to the revolutionary mobile money transfer M-Pesa[1]. ICT plays a key role in economic, social and political development of Kenya’s Vision 2030. The key projects being undertaken by the government under the Ministry of ICT’s National Broadband Strategy 2023 towards realization of this Vision include: the Digital Literacy Programme (DLP) whose coverage of public primary schools in 2019 was 93.4 per cent; Presidential Digital Talent Programme (PDTP) set to offer jobs to the youth through IT-Enabled Services (ITES); Innovation Hubs; Konza City; Studio Mashinani; e-government services; and Fiber Optic, now with four undersea cables that are the core drivers of the heavy fixed internet in the country.

Even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the telecoms were already on a digital transformation journey. However, the pandemic has more than any other factor impacted the way people operate and do business, particularly the idea of virtual meetings, online learning, telemedicine, and working from home, which is now becoming a new norm. The adoption of new ways of doing business has triggered most organizations to retool and reconfigure their work environment, including putting internet connectivity in the forefront.

The ICT sector in Kenya witnessed increased growth in performance with some of the key performance indicators emanating from the telecommunications sub-sector. Moreover, the ICT sector gained from compelled automation particularly in the first half of 2020 due to a surge in demand for internet data[2]. This would then grow after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the country in March 2020. Some of the indicators of growth in the telecommunication sub-sector are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1: Summary growth indicators in the telecommunications sub- sector

ACTIVITYJan-Mar 2020 Q3Apr-Jun 2020   Q4Jul-Sept 2020 Q1Oct-Dec 2020 Q2% Change Q3 2019/20 to Q2 2020/21
Mobile Money Subscriptions (Millions)55.2157.0359.8461.4111.23%
Data/ Internet Total Subscriptions (Millions)39.3941.4543.4544.3812.67%
Total Broadband Subscriptions22.322.6924.6325.7815.61%
Total Available International Bandwidth (Gbps)7,123.367,392.967,875.548,091.4313.59%
Total Used International Bandwidth (Gbps)3,049.263,235.603,697.624,008.0131.44%
Number of Registered Mobile Money Agents202,102223,184245,124264,39030.82%
Number of Active Registered Mobile Money Subscriptions (Millions)29.1930.5231.7932.4611.20%
Total value of Deposits (Ksh Billions)608.16634.03888.111,101.1481.06%

Source: Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK)[1]

One of the leading indicators of growth within Kenya’s telecommunications sub-sector is the mobile money subscriptions, which had experienced a growth of 11.2 per cent between January 2020 and December 2020. Similarly, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), in January 2021 the total number of mobile money subscriptions increased to 66.59 million from 66.01 in December 2020, with the total value of mobile money transactions being Ksh 590.36 billion. Data from the Communications Authority of Kenya shows that the total value of money deposited experienced an 81 per cent growth in Q2 of 2020/21 at Ksh 1,101.14 billion compared to Ksh 608.16 billion in Q3 of 2019/20. Use of internet services also grew tremendously in Q2 by 12.7 per cent where there were 44.38 million subscribers compared to 39.39 million subscribers at the beginning of the year. This phenomenon of increased mobile money transactions and data subscription could be attributed to the government directives that encouraged people to work from home, online learning from home, and popularization of e-commerce retail trade.

Kenya’s ICT sector contribution to Gross Domestic Product grew by 9.8 per cent from Ksh 56,939 million in 2019 to Ksh 62,533 million in 2020 based on the January to March 2020 comparable GDP figures. Similarly, in the period April to June 2020, activities in the sector also demonstrated a 4.6 per cent growth from Ksh 44,562 million in 2019 to Ksh 46,633 million in 2020. Growth during the July to October 2020 period was 7.3 per cent as activities grew from Ksh 48,610 million in 2019 to Ksh 52,147 million in 2020. The overall growth in the telecommunication sub-sector was majorly attributed to increased mobile cellular penetration, increased coverage in 4G, mobile commerce transfers, international telephone traffic and short messaging service (SMS). This highlights the significant role telecommunications plays in these dynamic times where physical interaction is limited.

Emerging local innovations amidst the prevalence of COVID-19

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous tech-innovations have been made in Africa, with the potential to alter how businesses operate. African countries had spurred a number of innovations with at least 130 new or modified technologies.[1] For example, there were over 120 health technologies piloted or adopted within Africa, accounting for about 12.8% of global inventions in 2020. These include online health care; artificial intelligence (AI) for social welfare funds disbursement; governmental digital platforms; big-data analytics; robotics for food and medicine delivery; and 3D printing, among others. The innovations were further categorized as ICT-based, comprising of 58% of the inventions, 3D printing at 25% while 10% of the inventions were driven by robotics as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Categories of inventions and creations by African countries

Source: World Health Organization (2020)

In the same study, Kenya was ranked second after South Africa as the most innovative African country at 10%, followed by Nigeria at 8% and Rwanda at 6%. Innovations from these four countries accounted for 37% of the continent’s innovations. This phenomenon may be explained by findings from the World Intellectual Property Organization, which hypothesized that developed economies were more likely to be innovators.

Consequently, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered innovation of equipment that were formerly imported by Kenya from international manufacturers and led to the development of digital applications to address challenges within the health sector. The opportunity to use local resources and technologies was necessitated by the inward-looking trade strategies that countries had adopted to ensure limited supply met their increased local market demand in response to the pandemic. In fact, Kenya was ranked position 23 globally and position one in Africa in terms of COVID-19 innovations, with Nairobi at position 22 globally in the ranking for coronavirus innovation cities.[1] Most innovators focused on the health sector as it was the most affected, having human lives directly endangered by the pandemic. These innovations include:

a) Ventilators

In March 2020, the total tally of ventilators in the country were only 540, with functional ones confirmed to be 256. These were expected to serve a population of 47,564,296 persons, a dismal coverage of only 0.0011% of the population. The acute shortage was accompanied by a ban of exports of the ventilators by developed economies as they also required them to sustain their populace. This grim situation of inadequate ventilators in Kenya witnessed innovative stunts among Kenyan youth. Most notably, a group of 16 university students developed prototypes of ventilators called “Tiba Vent”. These innovations were commended by the Cabinet Secretary for Industrialization, and it was agreed that they would produce 50 ventilators for purchase by the Government. Other such innovations included the modelling of similar prototypes by different multi-disciplinary sections of other universities comprising of engineers, doctors and other specialists. However, there has not been any documentation on the approval for use of such ventilators.

b)Pulse oximeter to monitor oxygen levels

Another local innovation was the production of a pulse oximeter. These instruments are used by clinicians during household visits and simplifies the tedious data entry process while reducing the lengthy analysis process. It also strengthens diagnostic and monitoring capacity of community-based and facility-based healthcare workers. For example, in Siaya County, the use of this basic equipment furnished community health workers with skills to rapidly access reliable data which was further transmitted to the Ministry of Health.[1]

c) Inexpensive ICU medical beds catering for isolation cases

The surge in COVID-19 cases in the country pointed to a gap in the number of ICU hospital beds. This spurred innovative creations by youths from various counties such as Kiambu where ICU beds to cater for isolation of patients were made. Demand for such innovations was further fueled by the Presidential directive to counties to ensure they had at least a 300-bed capacity in hospitals. The innovators would deliver 500 beds through a Presidential directive that would cost the government Ksh 32 million. Local beds were saving costs by Ksh 40,000 compared to costs from importation.

d)Mobile applications “Flare” and “AfyaRekod”

There were innovations that focused on digitalization of services through the development of mobile applications. One of these mobile applications within the health-tech sector is called “Flare”. The app connects the largest fleet of quick-response ambulances monitored by real time tracking at the dial of one number and provides a 24-hour hotline to medical professionals. It resolved the issue of having a two to three hour wait to only 15 to 20 minutes, thus increasing patient survival rates. Another mobile application called “AfyaRekod” is a digital online platform that allows patients to run COVID-19 assessment tests, track symptoms, consult doctors and get updates on a real-time basis. The artificial intelligence-driven application has enabled the detection of areas where COVID-19 infections were growing, thus monitoring the changing nature of the symptoms.


COVID-19 has resulted into game changing advances within the ICT sector and innovations in Kenya. This is because there was a rapid shift to digitalization of services such as mobile money and mobile banking that is evidenced by the increasing number of user subscriptions. Similarly, this digitalization is in line with Kenya’s Vision 2030, which seeks to pursue technological transformation aimed at rapid economic growth and mapping Kenya as a knowledge-based economy. Additionally, there was import substitution for products and services that were initially imported, thus promoting the uptake of locally manufactured goods from innovative creations that were less costly.

However, the big question is, how sustainable will these local innovations be in the long term? There has been worry that the gains would be reversed as there has not been a direct government directive or intervention to outrightly support the innovations. In addition, there have also been little to no reports on additional innovations in the recent months. Is there an end to the creative innovations trend? However, there are still many opportunities availed for government interventions and further creativity, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic is in the third wave within the country.

Authors: Beatrice Kinyua, Young Professional, Strategy and Planning Department

Clement Otindo, Young Professional, Strategy and Planning Department

Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia

[1] World Economic Forum, 2020. Youth, tech and community: 4 lessons from the COVID-19 response in Siaya, Kenya.

[1] Health Innovation Exchange by UNAIDS and StatupBlink, 2020. COVID-19 Innovation Report.

[1] World Health Organization, 2021. Looking back at a year that changed the world: WHO’s response to COVID-19. Geneva: Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

[1] Communication Authority of Kenya, 2021. Sector Statistic Reports.

[1] World Bank Group, 2019. Kenya Economic Update, October 2019 : Securing Future Growth – Policies to Support Kenya’s Digital Transformation. World Bank, Nairobi. © World Bank. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO

[2] World Bank Group, 2019. Kenya Economic Update, October 2019 : Securing Future Growth – Policies to Support Kenya’s Digital Transformation. World Bank, Nairobi. © World Bank. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO

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