Economic and Social Council Discusses Leveraging Technology, Innovation to Build More Resilient Africa, on Final Day of Integration Segment

Real world examples of technology and innovation being deployed to build a more resilient Africa in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development were presented to the Economic and Social Council today as it concluded its annual three‑day integration segment.

Joshua Ogure, Coordinator, Map Kibera Trust, speaking during the morning session on the theme “Leveraging technology and innovation to support resilience and inclusiveness in Africa” in the context of the 2030 Agenda and the African Union’s Agenda 2063, said his organization began as a youth project to map — for the first time — the Nairobi slum district of Kibera, which had appeared as a blank on Government maps.  Using OpenStreetMap, a free wiki mapping platform, young people generated a comprehensive digital map that was later broken down into thematic areas, including health, security, education and water and sanitation.

Frank Selker, Director of International Sales, Trans‑African Hydro‑Meteorological Observatory, told the Council about that venture’s ongoing deployment of 20,000 solar‑powered weather monitoring stations across Africa — enough to provide data for continent‑wide forecast modelling.  Installed on school grounds, the devices generated data that the Observatory provided to Governments and scientists for free and sold to the private sector on a subscription basis.

Rafiah Ibrahim, Senior Vice‑President and Head of Market Area Middle East and Africa, Ericsson, noting that Africa remained the world’s fastest‑growing mobile market, said the continent needed a cost‑effective and robust cellular network that would offer more bandwidth in rural areas.  She also discussed the potential for mobile money, and an Ericsson programme to teach information and communications technology skills to schoolgirls in Cameroon and South Africa.

Wilhelmina Jallah, Minister for Health and Social Welfare of Liberia, said the Ebola outbreak in West Africa had exposed serious weaknesses in her country’s public health surveillance system.  In the years since, Liberia was developing a better way to detect, prevent and mitigate outbreaks, but challenges remained, including low Internet capacity and an unreliable electricity supply.

Bience Gawanas, Special Adviser to the Secretary‑General on Africa, painting a broader picture, said the continent could not fully harness the opportunities provided by technology so long as it lagged in terms of access to information and communications technologies.  She also made the case for women to be given a bigger role in decision‑making.

The afternoon session — on the theme “Designing a resilient and sustainable future - a toolkit to better prepare for tomorrow” — explored the contribution of frontier technologies to building resilience, as well as policy planning toolkits and techniques.

Among the speakers, Carlos Valdés González, Director General, National Center for Disaster Prevention of Mexico, said his country’s disaster response had been tested in 2017 with two large earthquakes and several hurricanes in the span of one month.  That combination proved that information must be shared rapidly and efficiently, he explained.

Hayat Sindi, Founder and President, i2 Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity, said human, climate and natural disasters had all become more frequent and widespread, touching both lives and ecosystems.  Responding to them required resilient coordination and implementation initiatives, as well as access to development finance and stronger regional and international cooperation.

Jamil Ahmad, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) New York Office, said climate risk insurance had taken on a prominent role in the global conversation on climate change.  Satellite imagery could be used to assess flood damage to rice crops, helping identify villages hit by drought and streamline payouts to farmers, he said.  Insurers were also using mobile technology to collect premiums and make payments in a timely manner.

Marie Chatardova (Czechia), President of the Economic and Social Council, in closing remarks, said it was encouraging to see that many countries and cities had already developed resilient strategies.  The success of resilience strategies depended on all global citizens, she said, adding:  “We need to seize every opportunity to create resilience and resilient societies.”

At the outset of today’s meeting, the Council watched a short video, titled “Tanzania Flying Labs”.

Also speaking today were representatives of Morocco, Nigeria and Mexico, as well as the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth.

Session V:  Leveraging Technology and Innovation to Support Resilience and Inclusiveness in Africa in the Context of the 2030 Agenda and Agenda 2063

The Economic and Social Council began its day with an interactive session on the theme “Leveraging technology and innovation to support resilience and inclusiveness in Africa in the context of the 2030 Agenda and Agenda 2063”.  Moderated by Gogontlejang Phaladi, Founder and Executive Director of the Gogontlejang Phaladi Pillar of Hope Project, it featured Wilhelmina Jallah, Minister for Health and Social Welfare of Liberia; Bience Gawanas, Special Adviser to the Secretary‑General on Africa; Rafiah Ibrahim, Senior Vice‑President and Head of Market Area Middle East and Africa, Ericsson; Frank Selker, Director of International Sales, Trans‑African Hydro‑Meteorological Observatory; and Joshua Ogure, Coordinator, Map Kibera Trust.

Ms. PHALADI, noting Africa’s vulnerability to external shocks and the need to promote innovation, said the discussion would consider several key questions, including the experience of African countries in using technology and innovation to strengthen resilience and inclusion, and how the United Nations development system and other partners could support those countries in that regard.  She invited those following the session from outside to participate via social media using the hashtag #resilienceintegrated.

Ms. JALLAH described Liberia’s experience during the Ebola outbreak, which claimed nearly 11,000 lives, saying that a key factor in the rapid spread of that disease was a weak public health surveillance system.  Information was very fragmented and it did not flow regularly.  Post‑Ebola, the country sought to develop a better system that would enable the Government to better detect, prevent and mitigate outbreaks.  Going forward, challenges included struggling with open and proprietary software, data storage and backup, and regional coordination.  That latter needed to be strengthened, she said, recalling that Ebola had affected neighbouring countries as well.  Broader challenges included low Internet capacity and unreliable electricity supply.  “At least we are making strides,” she said, noting that she could now be in her office and get more reliable data, even if it did not come in real time.  She went on to emphasize the importance of community engagement and working closely with other African countries, civil society and the donor community.

Ms GAWANAS said Africa faced multidimensional development challenges that required a comprehensive approach.  When talking about resilience, much of the conversation was about natural disasters and other environmental shocks, but health crises — like Ebola and maternal mortality — and external economic shocks were also significant.  Resilient societies were those which had embedded in them human rights and people’s empowerment.  Africa could not fully harness the opportunities provided by technology when it was still lagging in terms of access to information and communications technologies, she said.  While the gender gap had narrowed overall, the proportion of women using the Internet was 25 per cent less than that of men.  Conflict prevention was also essential for building resilience, she said, noting that the migration of pastoralists due to climate change and drought cycles often led to conflict with other communities.  Supporting the African peace and security architecture was therefore more urgent than ever.  Returning to the role of women, she said she guessed she was an example of an African women integrated into the decision‑making and policy process.  But women’s participation could not be measured solely by their numbers in parliaments or cabinets.  In local communities, they were always the backbone even when things were not going well, but whilst they were participating, they remained absent from decision‑making.  Market women may not have gone to university, but they knew what it meant to participate in economic life and build resilient communities.

Ms. IBRAHIM recalled a 2017 multinational study by Ericsson and the Imperial College of London which determined that a 10 per cent increase in mobile broadband penetration led to a 0.6‑2.8 increase in gross domestic product (GDP).  Africa remained the world’s fastest‑growing mobile market, with 90 per cent of its population expected to be connected by 2023.  Emphasizing that network infrastructure must be cost‑efficient and robust, she said spectrum bands in the 700 and 800 megahertz range should be freed up in order to better serve rural areas.  She went on to discuss the possibilities of mobile money, which enabled farmers to pay suppliers and parents to cover school fees.  Governments could meanwhile increase their revenues through mobile platforms.  She also discussed an Ericsson programme to teach information and communications technology skills to primary school girls in Cameroon and South Africa.  Technology presented an opportunity to build resilience and accelerate inclusivity, but the infrastructure had to be in place, with affordable smartphones, and consumers must be educated on how to use it.

Mr. SELKER described how the Trans‑African Hydro‑Meteorological Observatory, or TAHMO, was created by two scientists who, upon discovering the lack of local precipitation records for most of Africa, set about establishing a network of weather monitoring stations, using solar‑powered devices with no moving parts that could record temperature, relative humidity, wind, rain, barometric pressure and lightning.  Open sensor ports could measure, among other things, groundwater and soil moisture.  There had been similar projects before in Africa, but they had come and gone.  Explaining that satellite rainfall data was unreliable, he said the goal was to install 20,000 TAHMO stations, or one for every 30 square kilometres, providing enough data to carry out continent‑wide weather modelling.  Emphasizing that technology alone was not enough, he said TAHMO was making a concerted effort to partner with Governments, whose meteorological departments were often short of funds.  TAHMO provided weather data to Governments and scientists for free, while selling to private subscribers such as The Weather Channel.  He went on to explain how TAHMO stations were being installed in schools, with study guides being provided to encourage students to explore weather‑related science topics.

Mr. OGURE said the Map Kibera Trust had its origins in a youth project to map the Nairobi slum district of Kibera, which had appeared as a blank on Government maps.  Using OpenStreetMap, a free wiki mapping platform, they recorded places of interest to produce a digital map that was later broken down into different thematic areas, including health, security, education and water and sanitation.  The project expanded to include Voice of Kibera, through which residents could share news and information via SMS messaging; Kibera News Network, with youth recording videos to be posted on YouTube; and OpenSchoolsKenya, through which lessons learned would be shared through the rest of Kenya and beyond.  Recalling that researchers had come to Kibera in past but never shared the results of their work with its inhabitants, he said Map Kibera had distributed printed maps as a way of giving back to the community and enabling people to use the data that they had provided themselves.

In the ensuing discussion, the representative of Morocco, noting the priority her country was giving to South‑South cooperation, asked about capacity‑building solutions amidst a lack of infrastructure and Internet coverage.

The representative of the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth, emphasizing the importance of investing in young people, asked about leadership practices in the implementation of technology and innovation.

The moderator conveyed questions posed via Instagram and Twitter about intellectual property rights in Africa and the policy environment that would be required to achieve inclusion and resilience.

Ms. JALLAH emphasized the importance of training youth so that they could take over new systems and technology.  Many people came to Africa with new initiatives, but Africans were often not ready to take ownership, so capacities needed to be built to accomplish that.  She added that each country, with its own political will, wanted to take ownership of new projects.  A participatory and collaborative approach would be better, with everyone buying into a project and deciding who would lead it.  Policymaking must be participatory and collaborative, she added.

Ms. GAWANAS said exclusion was a significant cause of conflict in Africa.  People must be part of decision‑making at all levels.  “They know best.  They know what they are experiencing, and only when they are participating would you have sustainability,” she said.  On intellectual property rights, she said many young Africans had brilliant ideas that must be protected as well as supported.  On policy coherence and integration, she said ministries must speak to each other more.  It was not possible for ministers of health to look into solutions, only for ministers of trade to go to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to discuss approaches that contradicted health needs.

The moderator conveyed another question, submitted by Twitter, regarding funding.

The representative of Nigeria, recalling that Africa had overcome slavery and apartheid, said youth must be given the attention they deserved.  Being a teacher, he had been amazed by what he had seen in the classroom regarding the potential of young people.

Ms. IBRAHIM said there were many ways to think about innovation.  Citing an example, she said her company had established in Senegal a “virtual laboratory” where testing, research and analysis could be done remotely.  Give Millennials the right programmes and they would come up with ways to innovate.  She added that the private sector in Africa could do more to support innovation.  On intellectual property rights, she said solutions created locally belonged to their local creators, who could then re‑sell it.  Innovation belonged to whatever country or organization that had invented it.

JERRY MATTHEWS MATJILA (South Africa), Vice‑President of the Council, asked Mr. Selker if TAHMO had installed weather sensors in slums or other “wrong places”.  He also recalled that mudslides had coincided with the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

Mr. SELKER said that for TAHMO, the educational component was irreplaceable.  Noting that the United States space agency had published research based on data from the TAHMO network, he said climate change research required a long data set, but Africa lacked climate records stretching back decades.  He went on to note his organization’s involvement in a project in Kenya to forecast river flooding.  He added that he was unaware of any TAHMO stations in unofficial communities, but he liked the idea, especially if motivated students were involved.

Mr. OGUIRE said that in Kibera, with 400,000 people — “though some people try to exaggerate that number for their own selfish aims” — living within 2.5 square kilometres, capacity‑building was key.  Capacity‑building was something that could begin from scratch.  He added that places like Kibera existed around the world, emerging from the failure of systems and of Governments to react in time.  The issue of permanency would eventually come into play, raising questions about eviction and relocation.  Happily, many development partners, including the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN‑Habitat), were coming into Kibera to help, and even railway expansion had led to the construction of permanent homes there.

Session VI:  Designing A Resilient and Sustainable Future — A Toolkit to Better Prepare for Tomorrow

The interactive session on the theme “Designing a resilient and sustainable future — a toolkit to better prepare for tomorrow” was moderated by Jeffery Huffines, United Nations Representative, World Alliance for Citizen Participation, or CIVICUS.  It included the following panellists: Carlos Valdés González, Director General, Civil Protection, National Center for Disaster Prevention, or CENAPRED, Mexico; Hayat Sindi, Founder and President, i2 Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity; Jamil Ahmad, Director, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), New York Office; Marshall Moutenot, Co‑Founder, Upstream; and Arno Zimmermann, Co-founder, Coolar.  Participating as a discussant was Plácido Gόmez, Vice‑Minister for Science and Technology, Dominican Republic, and Chair of the Commission on Science and Technology for Development at its twenty‑first session.

Mr. HUFFINES said that 2018 marked the third year of the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and while some progress was being made, far more ambition was needed to truly achieve sustainable development.  The world was facing “unnatural” and even “self‑inflicted” threats such as global warming, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and expanding populations.  History had shown, however, that humanity, when faced with threatening crises, reached for solutions.

Mr. VALDÉS GONZÁLEZ began his presentation by asking how the international community could avoid disasters.  Last year, Mexico’s disaster response was tested with two large earthquakes and several hurricanes in the span of one month.  He noted that the country’s early warning system had allowed 85 seconds for people in Mexico City to evacuate their homes during the first earthquake.  However, reaching the wider population was challenging, he said, noting that Mexico was home to 68 languages.  “We need to translate the information,” he added, emphasizing the need to strengthen the role of young people in getting the message out.  Mexico was focusing on the poorest and most vulnerable municipalities, which was challenging as many in those populations lacked access to various technologies.  Women and children were great at participating in crisis training sessions, he added, emphasizing the need to get men more involved.  Last year’s combination of earthquakes and hurricanes proved that information must be shared rapidly and efficiently.

Ms. SINDI, highlighting her work as an adviser to the Islamic Development Bank, said human disasters stemmed from conflict and fragility, which had become more widespread in recent years.  Natural and climate disasters were also becoming more frequent and affecting lives and ecosystems.  Responding to them required resilient coordination and implementation initiatives.  She underscored the need to ensure access to finances for development projects and to strengthen regional and international cooperation.  Humanity’s ability to operate in Earth’s orbit was developing various sectors including agriculture.  “We see how mountains move, how the Earth breathes and what we are doing to it,” she said.  Turning to bacteria and disease, she noted a shift in how people saw medicine and health.  She also underscored that partnerships were essential in leveraging the regional and global footprint and mobilizing resources.

Mr. AHMAD said that climate risk insurance had risen into a prominent role in the global conversation on climate change.  Payouts could be used by farmers, credit unions or banks.  He touched on different types of payment insurance.  One example was index insurance, which could have weather‑based payouts.  Picture‑based crop insurance aimed to minimize the cost of loss verification and make insurance more accessible to small‑scale farmers, he said.  Technology, mainly satellite imagery and blockchain technology, was already being used by farmers at the grass‑roots level.  Satellite imagery could be used to assess flood damage to rice crops, helping identify villages hit by drought and streamline payouts to farmers.  Additionally, insurers were taking advantage of mobile phones to collect premiums and make payments in a timely manner.

Mr. MOUTENOT said it was important to focus on initiatives that translated raw data into informed action.  His company, Upstream, was allowing projects to be spread out over much larger areas as it had the potential to reduce monitoring cost.  Using satellite imagery, farmers could assess water damage to their rice fields.  That could automate insurance payments and conduct coastal resilience projects.  Satellite imagery could spearhead city and rural planning by instantly searching for project locations and assessing environmental benefits at scale.  It could help understand key project metrics in real time to track successes and adapt management.  Satellite imagery could also help optimize planning by building scenarios and simulating outcomes with decades of data at one’s fingertips.  He underscored that the data must be put in the hands of people on the ground and implemented by farmers and cotton growers.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN said that there were more than 1 billion people living without access to electricity.  “There are things that seem very natural to us which are just not available” to others, he added.  Vaccines were an essential part of developing communities.  In the areas where electricity was scarce, 75 per cent of vaccines were stored at wrong temperatures.  Coolar, which “works like any refrigerator”, operated on distilled water and required no electricity.  He demonstrated how the Coolar could be used to store vaccines in rural medical facilities and noted its various key partners, including the Governments of India and Kenya.  Coolar could also be used in the agriculture and transport sectors.  Adding that it was a very small organization trying to change the world, he stressed the importance of long‑term innovation programmes that assisted small companies.

In the ensuing discussion, answering a question on how to deal with the line between entrepreneurship and sustainability, Mr. MOUTENOT said that Upstream was very selective when choosing partners.  Not all investors were enthusiastic about social responsibility.  He said more mission‑aligned funding opportunities were essential.

Ms. SINDI said that there was no framework or blueprint to ensure a sustainable entrepreneurial environment.  It must be an organic relationship.  The reality was that social entrepreneurship could fail or it could succeed.  The important thing was to enable a space for creative minds to flourish.

Mr. GÓMEZ, joining in on the conversation as a discussant, said that geospatial technologies could help create resilience, including disaster prevention and recovery.  During the 2011 earthquake in Haiti, satellite imagery helped coordinate relief delivery.  It had also made it possible for countries to improve planning and maximize the benefits of technologies.  He outlined various ways the Commission on Science and Technology for Development was helping build resilience through analysis of emerging trends.

The representative of Mexico said that disasters were very much connected to development and must be tackled as such.  The 2030 Agenda was partnership‑oriented, and could not be carried out by governments alone.  There were many small organizations that were trying to change the world, he said, welcoming the panellists “demystifying” issues which were often politicized.

Responding to a question from Morocco’s delegate on ways to promote a culture of resilience, Mr. GONZALEZ said that hurricanes were becoming widespread and therefore people were becoming more prepared for them.  Since earthquakes were a lot less predictable, resilience required reaching out to myriad populations in their native tongues.

MARIE CHATARDOVA (Czechia), President of the Economic and Social Council, in closing remarks, said that resilience had become prevalent in many different sectors, including technology and disaster risk reduction.  It was encouraging to see that many countries and cities had already developed resilient strategies.  Governments were partnering with civil society and academia, she said, adding that the resilience of countries depended on trust among different actors.  The success of resilience strategies depended on all global citizens.  “We need to seize every opportunity to create resilience and resilient societies,” she said.

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