Even before the government announced a partial lock down of Accra, Tema and Kumasi, sheer prudence had persuaded millions of Ghanaians around the country to engage in social distancing. In many cases this meant staying at home or at least avoiding relatively crowded places such as offices, markets and places for recreation and relaxation.
Just half a decade ago, this would have been nearly impossible to do for all but the upper middle and upper classes. But recent years have seen Ghana engulfed by a digital revolution spanning financial services delivery, commerce, communications and the provision of public goods and services from utilities to health and education,
The benefits of this have shown up most vividly in the area of financial services – digital payment platforms are now used by far more Ghanaians than those that use cheques or indeed any form of payment other than cash itself. Here mobile money is easily the most popular form of payment but there are several others being used increasingly, including products that allow for bulk payments to multiple beneficiaries, thus becoming popular for companies in paying staff salaries. Other financial services such as insurance, pensions and funds management also offer digital channels for disseminating information, exchanging correspondence and executing payments. This has become so widespread that Ghana’s financial inclusion has improved dramatically in recent years.
But until now, digital channels for monetary transfers, just as with commerce and access to public services, have been regarded as just a convenient alternative to traditional channels and have been used only by the relatively more cosmopolitan segments of the populace. Now however, the COVID 19 outbreak has made them essential for ever day life. Digitalization had been growing slowly but surely in Ghana – now its evolution has been forced into a quantum leap.
This goes far beyond serving as a payments platform. The digital addressing system, introduced amidst huge controversy by the President Nana Akuffo-Addo administration in 2017, now stands to prove its worth. Coupled with the ongoing, but necessarily suspended national ID card project, it has the potential to identify and reach the households and the micro and small sized businesses that need government’s support the most, to alleviate their economic predicament during the coronavirus outbreak. Whether these platforms will be used is another matter of course; but they are available, even though still incomplete, offering a crucial database which can guide government in its impending social and economic welfare disbursements.
Government’s embracing of digitalization also stands to enable it continue providing crucial public goods and services, during this period of enforced and voluntary lock down.
As part of a broader strategy to establish Ghana as a leading centre of ICT innovation in aub-Saharan Africa, government announced the release of a new digital roadmap in May 2019. This new strategy seeks to consolidate and build upon the increased digitalization of public services, while leveraging the rising use of digital technologies by businesses and consumers.
To be sure, payment of public utility bills online is already common place in Ghana and so even though public utility companies remain open for business despite the current partial lock down, they have the well tested capacity to interface with customers without any physical contact.
Beginning with the launch of online passport renewals in December 2016 and a paperless port system in September 2017, government has created digital platforms for an array of public institutions, including the Ministry of Tourism and the judicial system. These initiatives have already begun to pay dividends for the economy through improved efficiency and transparency of administrative procedures. For instance, import revenues have risen, due to the digitalization of permits and fee payments.
But far more importantly under the current dispensation, public services can be accessed and paid for remotely, meaning they can be accessed even under the ongoing lock down.
Instructively, Ghana rose 19 places between 2016 and 2018 in the United Nations E-Governance Survey, to rank 101st out of 193 countries, and 5th in Africa.
Innovation has also been implemented in the healthcare system, and this may prove crucial during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. A new platform was launched in December 2018 to enable online renewals of the National Health Insurance Scheme and within six months the number of renewals on the platform was averaging 70,000 a week.
Another health industry initiative involves linking the nationwide digital address system to the ambulance services to be provided through the importation of ambulances for every district, meaning every household will soon be able to get an ambulance at their doorsteps very quickly in the event of a medical emergency.
The public sector is also collaborating with international technology companies to overcome bottlenecks in healthcare provision. Government is using a US financed start-up, Zipline to use drone technology to make on-demand deliveries of blood transfusions, vaccines and other medical supplies to remote areas. The project is designed with the capacity to make up to 600 deliveries a day to a total of around 2,000 health facilities.
At the same time a new generation of innovative domestic technology start-ups are entering the market, seeking to use digital technology to address shortcomings in traditional care by both the public and the private sectors. For instance mPedigree provides a mobile phone platform that helps consumers to verify the authenticity of medicines to combat fake medicine usage, while mPharma uses logistics software to manage prescription drug inventories and streamline last-minute delivery of pharmaceuticals.
In the education sector, digital technology-driven distance learning is being increasingly combined with physical classroom learning programmes. This has given considerable capacity to the education sector to continue learning programmes even with all schools necessarily closed down well before the partial lock down was enforced.
For instance, in December 2018, the education start up, WOLO, launched an e-learning platform remotely providing access to Senior High School through online seminars, mobile phone applications and television, in addition to a digital library. MultiMedia Group, the oldest private electronic media company, spanning radio, television and the internet has also launched a dedicated e-learning channel on television.
Private schools in particular are already including digital learning programmes to run along side their traditional learning channels and some government schools are following suit although financing is an obvious challenge.
Ghana’s agricultural community is exempt from the lock down but the coronavirus outbreak presents obvious constraints. Again digitalization is minimizing their effects.
Here again, the private sector has taken the lead. A number of ICT firms have entered the market with products to address their many constraints and challenges. For example, Esoko, Farmerline and AgroCenta all provide market intelligence data to help farmers address the price they face at point of sale. This has become crucial during the period of lock down since government has been forced to close some of Ghana’s biggest food markets because of the failure of traders to observe social distancing protocols, but this has unfortunately deprived farmers of access to key supply chain price data
These platforms also offer weather data and forecasts, farming advice and financial tips. In 2018, Esoko expanded its services to include access to both pensions and insurance.
In Ghana, as in other countries around the world, agro-tech is aiding in crop selection, avoidance of pest infestations and in addressing the challenges of high post-harvest losses and climate risk, the latter through digitally offered agricultural insurance cover.
Ghana’s public sector is now getting in on the act. Most notably, COCOBOD has, since 2019, been developing an integrated cocoa farmers database with farmers registered biometrically. This initiative, scheduled to be completed before the end of 2020 will be crucial in developing effective policy interventions.
Another key government sponsored agricultural sector project driven by digital technology is the Ghana Commodities Exchange (GCX), launched in November 2018.It features a trading platform and a warehouse storage system linked via an electronic receipt system. It trades in maize, and palm oil as a start and is now expanding into rice with other crops to be included subsequently. It has started enabling farmers to use commodities stored in warehouses managed by the GCX as collateral with which to secure direly needed financing for their activities.
The Ghana Stock Exchange, as well as its subsidiary markets – the Ghana Alternative Stock Exchange (GAX) and the Ghana Fixed Income Market (GFIM) are already run on digital lines and this has enabled trading to continue uninterrupted by the effects of COVID 19.
One of the biggest new digital initiatives came just in time. This is the national QR Code platform for e-commerce payments.
Ghana’s Interoperable QR Code solution (GhQR) officially launched in March this year provides a standardized specification for interoperable merchant payments across the country, thus enabling seamless e-commerce even at the grassroot level. By providing a centralized switching service at Ghana Interbank Payments and Settlements Services (GhIPSS), – the wholly owned subsidiary of the Bank of Ghana dedicated to developing and managing electronic payment platforms – for QR code payments by all participants it enables merchants and traders who are customers of financial institutions, financial technology firms (fintechs) and mobile money operators, to either receive or make payments by simply scanning a quick response code on their smart phones. By replacing the need for prohibitively expensive point of sales devices with just the smart phones they all already have, it stands to make e-commerce easy to execute even for the smallest retail transactions.
Another product launched by GhIPSS so far this year is Proxy Pay, an overlay service on the GhIPSS Instant Pay service. It allows a customer of a financial institution, whether individual or corporate, to register an alias or proxy identifier – in the form of a phone number – as part of their account details. Payments made to the proxy identifier are credited to the linked bank account in the domiciliary financial institution, although a proxy identifier can be linked to a single account number in only one financial institution.
The digitalization of Ghana is being made possible by the country’s strong internet access penetration rate by African standards. By the beginning of January 2019, there were 10.3 million active internet users, amounting to over a third of the entire population. The internet market is dominated by mobile phone usage with 9.4 million consumers using mobile phones to access the internet. Around 66.7 percent of all mobile subscriptions are data subscriptions with a mobile data penetration rate of 92.7 percent, which is high by African regional standards; only South Africa has a higher penetration rate for 2G and 3G among sub Saharan African countries. Instructively, Ghana also has one of the fastest 4G usage growth rates on the continent and already there is an increasing clamour among the upper market segment for the country to embrace 5G as it becomes technologically available.
However, there is also growing awareness of cyber security concerns and indeed this is serving to curtail enthusiasm for digitalization and its wider applications.
Warned Ghana’s E-Crime Bureau in March: “There has been significant increase in business email interruption scams in which a number of email accounts have been compromised through a phishing email, hackers sending fraudulent invoices purporting to be from legitimate vendors, or altered wiring instructions with the money going to the hacker’s account, among others. In Ghana, the e-commerce industry is beginning to see a number of smishing (perpetrated through SMS) and vishing scams (perpetrated through scam calls). The use of malware and ransomware by cybercriminals is becoming a regular trend, as analysis and intelligence received by e-Crime Bureau reveal compromise of a number of computer systems and digital devices of individuals and corporate executives. This is due to the high demand of e-commerce platforms as cybercriminals have infiltrated the spread of Covid-19 updates and messages through the creation of malicious internet links, malicious websites, fake mobile applications, etc. which have widely been on circulation on social media platforms and have compromised user credentials of users. Some phishing emails orchestrated around Coronavirus advisory targeting corporate websites and email accounts have led to an increase in the number of cases of Business Email Compromise schemes over the past three to four weeks.”
Nevertheless, Ghanaians have little choice than to turn to digital channels to continue their everyday business and social activities. Expectedly, by the time the situation returns to normal when the virus recedes, digital applications will have become more a way of life than just a convenient option that can be used sometimes.