Mobile cash is the best way to help Africa fight Covid-19

Togo’s president Faure Gnassingbé: ‘Women will receive the highest possible payouts, as they are more directly involved in nurturing the entire household.’ © Valery Sharifulin\TASS/Getty

No matter how effective the developed world’s approach to the Covid-19 pandemic might be in terms of protecting public health, it simply will not work in Africa without social protections. With so many vulnerable low-income households and informal workers, forcing people to stay at home will only create certain poverty. However, my government is trying to go the extra mile to make sure this does not happen.

Africa is no stranger to outbreaks of deadly diseases, such as Ebola or Zika. Even so, the elusive nature of coronavirus undermines any claims we have made to progress on improving our health systems. Investments to increase capacity and access have admittedly been slow and more needs to be done.

If the number of severe Covid-19 cases increases as it has elsewhere, our healthcare delivery systems will be overwhelmed. So too the overcrowded morgues and cemeteries of many countries. Therefore, we cannot be complacent.

African countries are already taking urgent and necessary measures to stop the spread of infection. Now we need to enforce physical distancing, scale up the public health response and tighten travel restrictions within our countries.

But at the same time we must rapidly rollout social programmes to protect millions of our citizens. Almost 85 per cent of African workers — be they small farmers, street-food vendors, waste pickers, transport operators, or nomadic merchants — operate in the informal sector. Many survive day to day. Restricting their movement means they will not be able to put food on their families’ tables. The most effective way we can come to their aid is via cash transfers.

That is why as part of my government’s response to fight Covid-19 in Togo, we are setting up a social safety net scheme called “Novissi”. This means solidarity in local dialect, and is an unconditional cash transfer scheme designed to support all Togolese informal workers whose incomes are disrupted by the Covid-19 response.

Since last week, citizens have begun signing up using their mobile phones. Informal workers aged 18 or older whose revenue has been affected by the crisis and who can prove their identity with a valid voting card will receive a state grant worth at least 30 per cent of the minimum wage.

The aim is to help beneficiaries pay for basic daily necessities such as food, sanitation and communication — we have already waived water and electricity charges for the most vulnerable. It will help cushion them from the economic impact of complying with measures put in place to flatten the curve of the pandemic.

Women will receive the highest possible payouts, as they are more directly involved in nurturing the entire household. Payments will also be made directly to the mobile money account of beneficiaries. This is quick, reduces the risk of fraud and eliminates contact with cash, which many fear may help spread the virus.

People should not have to choose between death by Covid-19 or by hunger. So other African leaders could also use similar mobile-based, cash transfer schemes. Enrolment is quick. Funds can be transferred rapidly. The system is transparent and easy to audit.

Nevertheless, for many African countries, Togo included, this initiative will be an unprecedented undertaking. The cascading effects of the pandemic on global trade, combined with fiscal pressure from the response effort, mean that we cannot do this alone.

Now more than ever, the support of international donors, development partners, philanthropists, friends of Africa and, crucially, national diasporas can make a difference. The aim is to prevent us losing all the gains we have made in poverty reduction and attaining the UN’s sustainable development goals. To this end, in Togo we have established a National Solidarity and Economic Recovery Fund to help mobilise the money we need to succeed.

As African leaders, we must and shall push back at this pandemic. However, victory in the fight against Covid-19 will ultimately be judged not just by our ability to save lives, but also by our ability to keep millions of people from falling back into abject poverty. More than a health issue, it is also a question of security, given the terrorism-related risks in west Africa. This is the fight of a lifetime, and one I am confident that we can win if we fight it together.

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