Lusaka, April 18, 2020: Following the successful development and global launch of the 50 Million African Women Speak Platform (50MAWSP) in November 2019, everything was looking up for this first-of its-kind intervention to empower women in the COMESA region and the wider African continent. National launches were supposed to follow. Statewide marketing campaigns had been mooted. National Content Developers, responsible for collating the platform content were on the ground. Then Coronavirus (COVID-19) happened, and these have been put on hold, for now.
The first case of COVID-19 in the region was reported in February. What followed was the full or partial shutdowns of COMESA Member States; restrictions on travel imposed by COMESA Secretariat and most Member States; banning of public gatherings and restrictions to the conduct of work activities which are deemed to be non-essential
One of the major activities planned for the 50MAWSP in 2020 had been the national launches in the first half of the year (from February to June 2020) and the marketing, publicity and enrollment of users to the platform. By the time the COVID-19 took root in Africa, only one national launch (for Zambia in February 2020) had been conducted. Fourteen other national launches had been planned. In March launches were scheduled in Zimbabwe and Seychelles, while Ethiopia, Eritrea and Eswatini were planned for April and the rest of the countries in May and June.
The three-year project is funded by the African Development Bank, and jointly implemented by COMESA, East African Community and the Economic Community for Western African States in 36 countries. Its objective is to empower women entrepreneurs by providing a digital platform that enables access to financial and non-financial information needed to develop or grow businesses.
The national launches are a critical entry point for the 50MAWSP platform into the consciousness of key stakeholders, including government/public entities, private sector, media, civil society and women’s associations, among others.
They are expected to offer the first grand avenue to sell the platform, engage potential partners and open opportunities for practical illustrations of the usefulness of the platform through user trainings. They will also serve as the launchpads for dedicated platform marketing activities, which would be conducted through workshops, traditional media and digital media.
Restriction on the movement of people also means that Consultants who were recruited as National Content Developers (NCDs) are, for the time being, unable generate content for the platform. Similarly, offline sensitization activities have been put on hold, including workshops with women entrepreneurs in DR Congo and Tunisia and planned engagements with women in Zambia and Sudan.
While the online platform promotion remains an option, this has not been fully utilized as the focus of the target audiences, at the moment is on messages relating to COVID-19. The numbers of users accessing the platform has recorded drops of between 6% and 30% from the second week of March when Member States began preventive measures.
It can be inferred from these statistics that the onset of COVID-19 in Africa lowered the consumption of content on platforms such as 50MAWSP as many sought information on COVID-19 instead. This is however not a unique case.
The project has responded appropriately to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in a number of ways. These include continuing with those aspects of national launch plans which do not require physical meetings such as drafting of launch programmes, guest lists and speeches.
Country Teams are also encouraged to conduct virtual planning meetings where possible to validate content and/or discuss national launch plans. Focus has also shifted to social media tools to disseminate 50MAWSP messages during the period of lockdown and commencement of skills transfer exercises by NCDs to ministry staff to enhance the capacity of the latter to sustain the platform after the consultants’ contracts expire.
With the response measures outlined above, project activities have continued albeit it at a much slower pace. It is envisaged that a return to normalcy post-COVID-19 will be fairly seamless as a lot of the groundwork for key activities, particularly national launches, will have been undertaken already.
Furthermore, a full-scale marketing/promotion campaign to be undertaken by specialized media firms post-COVID-19 is expected to position the platform as the go-to resource for women in business to relaunch their entrepreneurial activities.