THE BLOG
12/01/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

Ebola and the Mobile African

They say Ebola hasn't changed, but Africa as a continent has. Previous outbreaks of the disease met an Africa that was already embroiled in its own issues: Plummeting growth rates, civil wars, an unrelenting AIDS epidemic and a laundry list of negative accolades that culminated in the continent's crowning as a "Hopeless Continent" by The Economist in May 2000.

Ebola hasn't changed, but Africa has. Over the past decade, we became a continent rising; rapid democratization swept through the continent and focus returned to improving lives through education, technology, improved sanitation and healthcare. Four countries officially shed the rags of "developing", stepping into the much-hyped glow of middle income status. In 2014, Africa is richer, better educated and hungrier than ever before (and not the kind of hungry one would ordinarily see on a late night television spot featuring Africans dust-tinged and literally two steps from lifeless, complete with a vulturous orbit of flies). Today's African is hungry for opportunity and driven to reap the benefits of business opportunities across and beyond the emerging continent. For today's African, there is a blow more devastating than Ebola - It's immobility.

Outbreaks in relatively remote and sparsely populated areas, made Ebola outbreaks of the past four decades (there have been over a dozen), easier to contain and eradicate. In Sierra Leone today, once a person is diagnosed with Ebola, all family members are driven into quarantine. Rapid urbanization and population growth have made this a necessary precaution, but it comes with obvious limitations. In Waterloo, a central transport hub on the country's western coast, the impact has been problematic not just economically, but socially; While parents and other caretakers are taken into quarantine, hundreds of children are being left orphaned for temporary amounts of time or longer.

Grassroot organizations like Build on Books are helping to combat the disease and its ensuing externalities. Founded in 2009 as an NGO sending book donations to Sierra Leone from the UK after the 11 year civil war, the organization has since evolved to cater to issues ranging from water to sanitation, food provision and most recently, the Ebola epidemic.

"When Ebola reached Waterloo, we already had the logistics and team on the ground to respond quickly," says Build on Books' founder Lori Spragg who, together with former math teacher Rosetta Kargbo, mobilized teams for Ebola prevention workshops and food delivery to 300 quarantined people around Waterloo and the young children often left behind as a result. According to some estimates, Sierra Leonean children have been orphaned by Ebola (UNICEF estimates this number could be as large at 7000) - far beyond what the community's orphanages can handle. Build on Books volunteers deliver cooked meals and drinking water to keep orphaned children fed and hydrated. They also act as interim health officials, detecting early signs of Ebola through regular temperature checks - actions can make the difference between death and survival.

Other organizations are also showing support in ways that mirror how far Africa has come as a continent technologically. Accra-based Bitcoin remittance company Beam, recently partnered with Sierra Leone's Splash Mobile Money, to facilitate the donations on which grassroots organizations like Build on Books depend. Mobile money has been an inextricable part of Africa's recent success story, fuelling quicker and cheaper access to funds by effectively turning any feature phone or smartphone into a bank account. While services like Western Union and bank transfer services like SWIFT have long existed, the use of Bitcoin technology is significantly expanding access to funds through speedier transactions at considerably lower cost:

Payment Processor Fee: 1%-3%
Typically charged by companies like Visa, MasterCard, Paypal to accept money from the sender.

Fixed Transfer Fee: USD 2 - 30
Fixed amount charged by Bank or Money Transfer Organizations (MTOs). It commonly known as the SWIFT fee during international bank wires, the Transfer fee during MTO transfers.

Foreign Exchange Fee: 3%-15%
This is charged by banks or MTOs to convert foreign to local currency

Typically only about 85% of a donation's value will reach charities through the above methods. With Bitcoin technology, this value could be as high at 98%.

Beam also works with LunchBoxGift, part of 'Let them help themselves out of poverty' (LTHT) a charity founded by London-based Sierra Leonean Memuna Janneh, who have delivered over 2,600 hot meals to seven vulnerable communities in Freetown so far. Capitalizing on the almost feeless nature of Bitcoin transactions (0.0001 Bitcoins per transaction regardless of the sent amount, which is less than $0.10) Beam is a testament to the transformative capabilities of technology, helping grassroots stay fearless in the face of Ebola eradication efforts. Together with Splash Money, they have pledged 100% of profits from donations through the platform, to Ebola relief efforts. Other commendable efforts include those of EngAyde, a web platform dedicated to disseminating information on Ebola and coordinating relief efforts targeted at Sierra Leonean diaspora through their Facebook page, as well as the National Ebola Response Recruitment Drive.

As the battle against the Ebola rages on, it's safe to say that threats to African mobility, while problematic, have taken us back to the roots of what we do well: Building resilient communities through innovative workarounds.