THE BLOG
11/06/2014 05:47 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

Finding the 'E' in the Fight Against Ebola

That Ebola arrived in New York, was not entirely surprising; New York is, after all, the prime gateway city for travelers to the U.S. What is surprising -- no, shocking -- is that it has, for now, departed from another gateway city, much closer to the disease epicenter: Lagos. The chaotic megacity of 21 million was introduced to Ebola by a single carrier, Patrick Sawyer. He passed the disease onto his doctors, nurses and a police officer. 20 were infected, 7 died. Today, Lagos is Ebola free. How did a government that is so dysfunctional and a city so chaotic manage such a feat? Remember, this is the country that has still not been able track down the 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram, the extremist group and continues to be ineffective in preventing random terror attacks and day-to-day crime and corruption.

How did Nigerian authorities -- contrary to the worst fears of global public health experts -- get essential information out and collect enough data to keep track of everyone who might have been exposed to the deadly virus? Nigerian health officials, working alongside the World Health Organization and the US CDC and others, managed to reach all of the known contacts in Lagos and 99.8% of the population at the second outbreak site in Port Harcourt, the country's oil hub. Local communities, traditional and religious leaders as well as celebrities were brought into the effort to support containment measures.

Without question, a central tool in the fight to contain and drive out the scourge of Ebola is the digital communications infrastructure. Already, projects that combine multiple digital innovations, including crowdsourcing and supercomputing are being tied together by a partnership led by IBM in Sierra Leone, where the disease is spreading quickly and has already killed more than 3,000 people. Given the primitive state of Sierra Leone's digital foundations, it is useful to know if Nigeria's digital ecosystem was good enough to explain the country's remarkable success.

Interestingly, Nigeria does not have a particularly strong digital foundation either. Much like its performance on so many other indicators of progress and governance, its state of digital evolution is also quite undeveloped. In fact, according to The Fletcher School and MasterCard Digital Evolution Index, and our study, "Digital Planet: Readying for the Rise of the e-Consumer" just launched, Nigeria ranks 50th out of 50 countries in terms of digital evolution. I co-wrote this study with my colleagues at the Fletcher School, Christopher Tunnard and Ravi Chaturvedi. The explanation for Nigeria's poor showing in our research comes from four key drivers that govern the progress of a country from a brick-and-mortar and paper tradition to a digitally evolved state. These drivers include: willingness of consumers to transact online, available bandwidth and online security, government policies and regulations as well as factors that drive innovations in the digital space. Nigeria falls significantly below the global average - and the average of developing nations -- on all counts. Consider this: only 8.1 percent of the population has access to a personal computer.

Despite all of these challenges, there are several factors that have played in the country's favor and the Ebola tracers made creative use of them. These islands of creative bootstrapping within widespread adversity should give hope to those who intend to take up digital arms against the disease in Sierra Leone and elsewhere. First, mobile phone penetration in Nigeria is 94 percent and in its urban areas, social media increasingly plays a key role in its citizens' lives. With more than 11 million on Facebook, Nigeria leads sub-Saharan Africa in its usage of the social networking platform that has captured a fifth of the planet. The country's Twitter usage is the third highest on the continent. The combination of mobile phone usage and social media penetration gave Nigeria a few good starting points.

Ebola hunters have made innovative use of these limited springboards on an otherwise underdeveloped digital framework. The @EbolaAlert Twitter handle, that helps answer critical questions, has a helpline and offers resources for reporting and containment, alone has drawn more than 76,000 followers. "We are spreading on Twitter much faster than the Ebola virus. Part of what we are going to do now is to see how we can transfer this to other sectors of society, " according to Dr. Lawal Bakare, quoted recently in the Financial Times; he is the dentist who started the site. Besides, Twitter and Facebook, there are several other approaches that have filled in the gaps - an example being an Android app, designed by eHealth & Information Systems, Nigeria that helps medical workers check for symptoms and send in reports. Furthermore, the country's mobile carriers have passed call records and usage locations of those infected to the authorities. Public health messages have been blasted out: at least 57,000 Nigerians received multiple government text messages educating them about the virus.
Nigeria, for all its challenges, is in better economic and technological condition than Guinea, Sierra Leone or Liberia, where Ebola's impact has been devastating. However, Nigeria's e-economy is full of gaps, much like its poorer West African neighbors. Hopefully, the creative approaches adopted by Nigeria's entrepreneurial Ebola tracers can provide a model for the others to follow for how one can innovatively piece together a solution even in the face of extreme adversity.

What about the one form of online usage for which the Nigerians are known the world over as uncontested leaders in the digital space: the online hoax? Unfortunately, the fight against Ebola was not spared from the national pastime. A social media prank spread rapidly urging Nigerians to drink excessive amounts of salt water to avoid catching the Ebola virus. Two people died and at least 20 were hospitalized. Other than that, despite all its challenges and digital deficiencies, Nigeria has shown us how to make the best use of the "E" in its fight against Ebola even when it scores so poorly on a global index of "E"-evolution. Hopefully, it can turn this indigenous innovative spirit to its myriad other challenges -- and demonstrate that it believes in not letting good crises go to waste.

Bhaskar Chakravorti is the Senior Associate Dean of international business and finance at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and the founding executive director of Fletcher's Institute for Business in the Global Context. He is the author of the book on innovation, "The Slow Pace of Fast Change" and co-author of Digital Planet: Readying for the Rise of the e-Consumer and the Digital Planet Index.