Small nation, clever COVID strategy

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How satellite imaging data and mobile cash systems helped citizens of Togo during the pandemic

Togo, occupying a narrow strip of land on Africa’s west coast about two-thirds the size of Ireland, has struggled to build a stable country and economy. Although it is a major exporter of phosphates, it is still dependent on foreign aid and a large part of its just under 9 million population are “informal workers”.

When the coronavirus reached Togo in March, it effectively went into lockdown. Despite its relative poverty, Togo provided an economic assistance program to replace lost incomes of its inhabitants. It assembled a system to support its poorest people with mobile cash payments, i.e., payments made via mobile phones.

Togo’s aid initiative was powered by machine learning algorithms which sought signs of poverty in satellite photographs and from cell phone data. This small country coped with the pandemic by putting in place a programme of urgent experimentation.

Until the pandemic, scientists and administrators in Togo had little access to reliable data on citizens and their needs. A decision was made though, that in order for the nation to cope with the pandemic a data centric approach was likely to be beneficial to its inhabitants’ aid needs.

Shegun Bakari, an adviser to Togo’s president, said it worked so well that the data-centric approach will likely be used more widely in future. “This project is foundational for us in terms of how we can set up our social protection system in Togo in the future”.

They hastily put together an aid programme called Novissi, meaning “solidarity” in the local Ewe language. Remarkably it took shape during 10 intense days of work starting in late March. Cina Lawson, Togo’s Minister of Digital Economy, was motivated to complete the programme quickly by the sideeffects of pandemic shutdowns.

Half of Togo’s population, 4 million individuals, live on less than $1.90 a day, most of these Togolese work in the so-called informal sector, as manual labourers or as seamstresses. COVID-19 restrictions abruptly cut off their income. They needed urgent support.

Novissi was launched on April 8, 2020, sending aid that same day to informal workers in and around Togo’s capital, Lomé. Payments were sent via SMS, if a check against Togo’s voter ID database, which covers 93 percent of the population, confirmed a person had previously declared an informal occupation and lived in an eligible area. The program was quickly expanded to the area around Togo’s second largest city, Sokodé.

However, worries still remained that the Novissi programme would not be able to target all those people in need of help. So, Lawson contacted Joshua Bloomenstock, UC Berkeley Centre for Effective Global Action, who had been researching how big data could fill information gaps facing countries like Togo.

His method proved to be a great success and … so far, the Togo government has sent roughly $22 million through Novissi to assist nearly 600,000 people.

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