-By Shameel Joosub
Regardless of race, culture, or status, people around the world are suffering in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hardships range from the most debilitating – such as hunger and homelessness – to crippling psychological effects such as fear, loneliness, and anxiety. Despite this new reality, all around us, we see the very best of humanity coming to the fore. From simple acts of neighborly kindness to extraordinary corporate and health innovations; in societies across the world we are witnessing more care than indifference, more steadfastness than despair.
We are also each called upon as individuals to contribute to relief efforts, wherever possible. This includes South Africa’s Solidarity Fund, to which I am personally proud to make a contribution over the coming months. I would like to appeal to all fellow South Africans who are fortunate enough to be able to assist in the fight against the pandemic, to do so in whatever way they can.
Naturally, with people now increasingly physically isolated in various state lockdowns, mobile and fixed networks become even more critical to keep societies functioning. Vodacom’s numerous teams in countries across the African continent are working hard and in testing conditions – during these unprecedented times – in order to keep communities, businesses and governments connected. We are also seeing the development of some exciting innovations which harness the power of technology to help fight the virus.
Maintaining Network service quality
Vodacom’s operations in South Africa, Tanzania, Lesotho, the DRC and Mozambique have all recently experienced extraordinary growth in network traffic. We have undertaken various measures to ensure that our network quality across the continent will not be compromised in the coming months. In South Africa, Vodacom will spend over R500 million within the space of two months to add network capacity during the national emergency lockdown period, to ensure customers continue to enjoy a seamless experience as more people work from home and use online platforms for schooling their children and for entertainment. Both Vodacom Tanzania and the DRC are prioritising network optimisation for areas that need improvement as well as network resilience. In Lesotho, equipment is being purchased to increase capacity in identified hotspots and, in Mozambique, plans have been initiated to provide additional support to all critical sites.
Support services for e-Learning
With many children unable to attend school in person, e-Learning becomes even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vodacom e-School in South Africa, a free curriculum-aligned service for subscribers, has seen user registrations on the platform increase to over 1 million. In March alone, we saw over 100 000 new registrations, a four-fold increase in the number of new registrations on the platform compared with February. In addition to providing special bundles to universities so that students can access e-learning platforms, we have expanded our zero-rated offering to all public schools, universities and T-Vet colleges across the country to ensure that students enrolled into these institutions will be able to access relevant information for free via these portals.
Vodacom Tanzania continues to promote its free education platform for students and Vodacom DRC offers VodaEduc, a zero-rated learning platform. Vodacom Mozambique is working on providing free internet for the government’s e-learning portal and free access to university portals with the Minister of Science and Technology. Finally, Vodacom Lesotho is providing free data access to 101 schools, with plans to connect an additional 59 schools by July 2020.
Providing support to African governments
There have been various initiatives across our operations to support African governments in combating the spread of the virus. Some of these examples include:
- In South Africa, Vodacom Group will donate 20 000 smartphones plus 100 terabytes of data and 10 million voice call minutes to the National Department of Health to collect and transmit data in real time for resource planning purposes as government accelerates its COVID-19 testing campaign. Vodacom South Africa recently entered into a partnership with Discovery Health, the country’s largest administrator of medical schemes, to offer free virtual consultations with doctors to the general public to alleviate pressure on the country’s healthcare system by assisting in diagnosing COVID-19 as well as treating it. We have also zero rated a number of critical websites such as www.sacoronavirus.co.za, the South African Unemployment Fund (UIF) as well as public hospital and clinic websites through the ConnectU platform. In partnership with the National Department of Health, we have sent out numerous text messages to our 44 million customer base to raise awareness around hygiene etiquette as well as the official COVID-19 WhatsApp line.
- In Tanzania, we recently made a donation of $1 million both to the Central Government committee driving National Response Plans on COVID-19 and the Government of Zanzibar to be used towards purchasing medical equipment. Through the Vodacom Tanzania Foundation, Vodacom is providing the Ministry of Health and ICT Departments with 10 Mobile Routers and bundles to assist them in their response efforts. Vodacom Tanzania has also provided a zero rated data link to the country’s government COVID-19 team to assist with communication and provide free data access to the National Institute of Medical Research. This is in addition to zero rating access to several government websites with awareness campaign content and other information on Covid-19. Vodacom Tanzania has also partnered with the Ministry of Health on an awareness campaign utilizing various its channels of communication including SMS, IVR, Video in addition to zero rating education portals of higher learning institutions.
- In the DRC, Vodacom is providing an SMS broadcast to its entire customer base with information and updates from Government around the pandemic. Vodacom DRC is also building a zero-rated ConnectU platform which will include the provision of COVID-19 info. Vodacom DRC is also offering the government a zero rated short code that allows the general public to call into specialised Ministry of Health agents to ask about COVID-19 symptoms and guidance. It has also zero rated all government websites and applications that inform the public about the pandemic.
- In Mozambique, Vodacom is providing free connectivity to ministries, airports and NGOs. In addition to this, Vodacom Mozambique is in discussions with the Ministry of Health to offer support around geo-data tracking and big data analytics.
- In Lesotho, Vodacom has sponsored a toll-free call centre and WhatsApp line for information and guidance around the pandemic. Vodacom Lesotho has further donated 1,000 mobile phones to Government for use in efforts to track and contain the pandemic. Vodacom Lesotho is also allocating data and voice call minutes to 6,000 health workers to enable easy communication and access to crucial COVID-19 related information. Additionally, Vodacom has zero rated access to educational and health websites in order to enable easy access to information by citizens and continued digital access to education during the national lockdown and beyond. Vodacom is also sponsoring radio communication from the Ministry of Health to update the general public as well as answer questions about COVID-19. In order to facilitate easy access to mobile financial services, Vodacom has implemented zero fees for merchant transactions of up to M50.00 and zero transaction fees for person to person money transfers of up to M100.00.
- Some of Vodacom’s operations use big data analytics to provide aggregated data to governments to help track the spread of the disease, as well as to monitor population movements. In South Africa, Vodacom continues to offer its support to government, including national and provincial departments of health, in helping to prevent the spread of Coronavirus through providing population movement insights. This includes offering the use of location services, which is based on aggregated and anonymised information. These insights can assist decision makers in understanding how people are responding to various COVID-19 interventions, such as the national state of disaster lockdown. This data is aggregated to municipality, district and province level and the information may be used to improve the speed and precision of resource allocation, where needed.
Supporting Small and Micro Businesses
It is critical that small and micro businesses across the continent remain supported during the pandemic. In South Africa, Vodacom is extending loans to SMEs to assist them with cash flow challenges. Vodacom Tanzania is currently assessing the risk of SMEs shutting down, and a payment plan will be put in place for customers who need support. In the DRC, additional data allocations have been provided to SMEs and work from home services have been extended to all Vodacom enterprise customers in the region. Vodacom Mozambique is looking to introduce special work at home packages for SMEs. Vodacom Lesotho has identified vulnerable sectors for special assistance and is also considering providing a combination of payment holidays or discounts to SMEs over a four month period.
Maintaining M-PESA platform, enabling cashless payments and financial services
Vodacom’s operations in Lesotho, Mozambique, DRC and Tanzania have introduced various changes to make it easier to use the M-PESA service during state lockdowns. These include increasing daily wallet limits, waiving some of the P2P fees and merchant payments fees paid by customer, reducing transaction fees and promoting the use of M-PESA over in-shop purchases to limit interactions between people and curb the spread of the virus. As an example, Vodacom Lesotho has implemented zero fees for merchant transactions up to the value of M50.
Vodacom: supporting you through this crisis
Vodacom is proud of the various innovations and public private partnerships which pool the best talent and technology to find new ways to flatten the curve of the virus. As a leading African telco, we have a clear duty as part of our social contract to provide access to essential services to as many people as possible. We remain determined to keep the continent confidently connected during the coming months as we make every effort to offer support to our customers and staff during this once in a lifetime event.
Vodacom South Africa has already experienced a notable increase in fixed and mobile traffic during the lockdown. Maintaining our network service quality remains our top priority and we will continue to increase our network investment spend to manage the extraordinary traffic increases in the short term. We will continue to do everything in our power to support all governments throughout our African operations in whatever way we can.