Africa’s innovators turn to tech to tackle transport woes

An electric OX truck drives past cyclists carrying heavy loads in Nyamasheke, Rwanda. September 14, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Handout via OX.

DURBAN, – After a minibus taxi driver threatened to throw her out on the street for asking him to slow down as he raced down the highway, South African nurse Lebogang Matjila scoured the internet for a safer, cheaper way to get to her patients.

When she found Planet42, a rent-to-buy car company that said it would help her eventually own her own vehicle, she thought it sounded too good to be true.

“I had been scammed once before, but I filled in my details and applied online because desperation can do that to you,” said the 42-year-old mother of two from Pretoria.

“Some may say it’s just transport, so it’s not so important. But you can only say that in South Africa if you don’t care about your safety,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

About 33% of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population has access to public transport, in contrast to 75% in Europe and North America, according to United Nations statistics.

To help people get around safely and affordably, Africa’s innovators are looking to technology, from a data-driven company that helps South Africans with bad credit buy cars to an app-based truck service delivering potatoes and more in Rwanda.

“Transport is a very important piece in the puzzle of people accessing jobs, feeling included and realising their potential,” said Planet42 founder Eerik Oja in a video interview.

Using algorithms to detect applicants who have been “unfairly ignored by banks”, the social enterprise has helped put some 8,000 insured cars on the road in the past five years, Oja said.

Planet42’s machine learning tracks thousands of public data points from credit bureaus – such as credit scores – to calculate who is eligible to rent a car from them and eventually buy it at a reduced cost.

“As we get more data, we get better at determining which customer is a good risk to take, so we can actually keep lowering the price of our service,” said Oja.

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed tens of thousands of South Africans into arrears, he said, adding that those are the kinds of “blacklisted” customers Planet42 can help as they try to rebuild their credit scores.

For Matjila in Pretoria, it was unpaid store credit from her student days that destroyed her score and left her unable to get a loan, even after she had paid it off.

Since getting her car, she said her income has doubled as she is able to travel to more patients every day.

“There are so many other blacklisted South Africans stuck without solutions and without safe transport,” she said.

“Tech solutions that they can access from their homes or phones could change their lives, too.”

DEMOCRATISING MOBILITY

Transport inequality – the unequal distribution of travel resources such as cars or public transport – reinforces socio-economic divides while impacting livelihoods and safety, transport researchers say.

In Africa, vulnerable groups living in informally developed urban areas on city peripheries can face long, pricey and often dangerous journeys to work, according to a 2020 report by research financing group Volvo Research and Educational Foundations.

While Planet42 focuses on car ownership to advance what it calls the “democratisation of mobility”, OX, a new truck company in Rwanda’s Western province, is helping small business owners move everything from cows to coffins.

Launched in March 2021, OX allows customers to rent a spot in one of their eight trucks on a pay-as-you-go basis, all coordinated through an app managed by the driver.

For many of OX’s customers, previous options for moving their stock were bicycles, donkeys or porters, which limited how much and how fast they could sell.

The company has gained more than 300 customers since its launch and is growing 40% month-on-month in terms of revenue and volume, said managing director Simon Davis, adding that one customer – an animal feed supplier – has tripled his sales since he started using the service.

“If you move stuff, you make more money,” said Davis. “If you make more money, you can afford to access healthcare, send your kids to school, look after yourself … all byproducts of economic progress.”

NO SILVER BULLET

As in the rest of the world, mobile phone use is rising in Africa, driving a surge in apps designed to help people get around their cities safely and cheaply.

By the end of 2020, more than 45% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population subscribed to mobile services, with nearly 20 million people signing up just in the previous year, according to telecoms lobby group GSMA.

“We’re seeing a massive increase in ride-hailing platforms for motorcars and motorcycle taxis,” said Sam Clark, head of programmes at transport charity Transaid.

In Uganda, where research published in the journal Transportation Planning and Technology estimates there are half a million motorcycle and three-wheeler taxis, SafeBoda uses an app to link commuters with trained and reliable drivers.

Female riders interviewed by the researchers said they felt safer not having to negotiate prices with drivers and being able to identify and track their drive on the app.

But tech solutions are no silver bullet, warned Clark, citing poor connectivity in rural areas and noting that half of the African population still has no access to a smartphone.

More work needs to be done to make regular public transportation more accessible to everyone, he said – and that includes more investment in infrastructure and more women in senior roles.

“Many of the decisions concerning service delivery are made by men, for men,” said Clark, whose work at Transaid includes efforts to boost female leadership in transport.

“When more women are part of the decision-making process, greater consideration will be given to the needs of women as passengers.”

For nurse Matjila, filling in that online application has meant she can now choose whether to be a passenger or drive her own car, which has made her feel safer, increased her income and lets her spend more time with her family.

“To be honest, it changed my life,” she said.

https://news.trust.org/item/20220211111139-pi31w/

Sisters in Africa debunk myths and educate people to get the COVID-19 vaccine

Sr. Dr. Lucy Hometowu, a member of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, educates the parishioners in Ho Dome, a town in the Volta Region of Ghana. She is also the COVID-19 vaccine campaign coordinator of her congregation’s medical team. (Damian Avevor)

Accra, Ghana — It is noon, and Elijah Nayoo takes his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Akrofu, a town some 84 miles northeast of this country’s capital. His decision to get vaccinated followed a massive education and awareness campaign by religious sisters that encouraged him and thousands of others to get vaccinated against the virus. Nayoo received the vaccine at Mater Ecclesiae Hospital in Akrofu, run by the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church.

Before, Nayoo believed that the vaccine was unsafe and had severe side effects on human bodies, thus vowing never to take “the jab,” as it is referred to in many African countries.

“I couldn’t believe that one day I would receive the COVID-19 vaccine because I have always had a negative perception about the vaccines,” said the 36-year-old father of two, who works as an accountant in Accra. He got his first dose at the end of January.

Religious sisters in the West African nation of over 31 million people have been working hard to debunk COVID-19 vaccine myths that are rampant, ranging from denial that the virus exists to various false side effects. As of Feb. 16, just over 15% of the country’s population is fully vaccinated, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.

“I am thankful to the sisters for their key intervention towards containing the pandemic,” said Nayoo, explaining that through the education he received from the sisters, he has been able to speak to his family members and friends to take their jabs, which they have willingly received without any fear or panic. A sister who is a nurse administered the vaccine. “The campaign messages changed my mind, and that of other people to avail themselves for the vaccine,” he said. The information provided by the sisters was important in “demystifying the myth about the negative effects of the vaccines.”

Sr. Lucy Hometowu, superior general of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, said vaccine myths in Ghana and other African countries had led many citizens to forego vaccinations as virus cases and deaths are rising fast in the continent amid a fourth wave of infections.

“We have undertaken educative campaigns to demystify the myth surrounding the vaccines,” said Hometowu, who is also an obstetrician and gynecologist. “Our sensitization campaign helped increase the number of people who went for the jabs and got vaccinated with Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.”

Hometowu said that when they launched the Catholic Sisters COVID-19 Vaccine Ambassadors Campaign, meant to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, people were reluctant to get the vaccine despite the government’s efforts to ensure there were enough doses in the country.

The campaign led by the Conference of Major Superiors of Religious in Ghana in collaboration with the Vatican COVID-19 Commission is to create awareness, educate, sensitize and undertake advocacy on vaccine safety and adherence to the protocols. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, a U.S. charitable foundation established in 1944 by the hotel entrepreneur, sponsors the initiative. The foundation provides grants to nonprofit organizations in seven program areas, including its Catholic Sisters program for the education and training of Catholic sisters, and to support their human development work in Africa, the U.S. and other regions globally. (The foundation is a major funder of Global Sisters Report.)

Hometowu said the sisters all over the country are using the Vatican toolkit of consistent and factual communication strategies for the campaigns to “combat misinformation and disinformation related to COVID-19 and ensure accurate information is distributed about lifesaving vaccines.”

“The campaign being undertaken by hundreds of sisters from various congregations in designated areas is to complement the government and the National Catholic Health Service

COVID-19 response,” she said, noting that 800 sisters are participating in the campaign.

COVID-19 response,” she said, noting that 800 sisters are participating in the campaign.

The vaccination education effort by Catholic sisters in Ghana is also happening in other African countries.

In March of last year, the Catholic Sisters Initiative at the Hilton Foundation partnered with the Vatican COVID-19 Commission to aid the church in mitigating the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 virus in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. Religious sisters in the four countries started campaigns to encourage millions of citizens to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The sisters’ initiatives to educate and encourage people to get vaccinated as the best means to fight the virus have paid off. Thousands of people have availed themselves at various centers run by the sisters to receive the vaccine and avoid contracting the deadly virus, said Sr. Jane Wakahiu, associate vice president of program operations and head of the Catholic Sisters program at the Hilton Foundation.

“The project has been very successful. Thousands of people have accepted taking vaccines because they have seen religious sisters themselves taking the vaccines, and nothing bad happened to them, which is a success for me,” said Wakahiu, a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis.

Wakahiu said the foundation allocated $10 million to the program so that sisters working in health facilities can be imparted with knowledge about COVID-19 and vaccines and disseminate the same message to the communities they serve. The campaigns involved sisters going to homes of vulnerable people, slums, rural communities and market centers, and the mobilization of community leaders, churches and mass media.

“The reason for us starting this initiative [Catholic Sisters COVID-19 Vaccine Ambassadors Campaign] was to advocate and educate people about the vaccine because people had a lot of myths,” she said. The program has since been expanded to other countries including India, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. “Therefore, the sisters needed to provide clear education about the vaccine to reduce hesitancy. The other thing we needed was to increase the vaccine uptake so that more people can take in the vaccine, and this is in line with the Catholic social teachings to reach out to the most vulnerable and most poor who could not access the vaccine.”

In Ghana, for example, between Dec. 18 to Jan. 14, sisters convinced more than 1,700 people to get the vaccine. Ghana has administered over 12 million doses of coronavirus vaccines so far.

“Through the education and advocacy by the sisters, the people had a change of mind and were vaccinated,” said Sr. Mary Consolata Ntenye of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, who works with Hometowu. “The government, politicians and health professionals in Ghana have put in much effort and resources in procuring these vaccines for the nation, and as citizens, it’s our civic duty to get vaccinated to protect ourselves and others, our families, friends, loved ones, coworkers and above all to bring an end to the pandemic in the world.”

In Zambia, religious sisters have carried out a vaccine campaign that has helped reduce severe illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths. The program under the Zambia Association of Sisterhoods, or ZAS, umbrella started in June 2021, targeting 1,200 healthcare providers, including Catholic nuns and citizens.

The southern African country of over 18 million people has administered about 2.5 million doses of COVID vaccines so far, with about 9.8% of the population fully vaccinated. Sr. Astridah Banda, a member of Dominican Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, said the sisters had contributed a lot to the number of people who have been vaccinated in the country. Many people had been hesitant to take the vaccine because of a lack of adequate information on the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, she said, adding that the sisters raised awareness among members of the general public to come out and receive the jab.

Banda, the project coordinator of ZAS, said she has been running a show on Radio Maria: Yatsani Voice, dubbed the “COVID-19 Awareness Program,” to share critical health information about the pandemic and also dispel vaccine myths in the country.

“Through our influence, community members have been vaccinated, and because of that, I have seen many of our colleagues get the vaccine, and it’s good that the response is so far overwhelming as people are now proud to state publicly that they are fully vaccinated,” said Banda, who is also a social worker by profession.

In Kenya, sisters through the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya, or AOSK, have been raising public awareness and fighting myths around COVID-19 vaccines through radio broadcasts, presentations, asking priests to include information during Masses, and the distribution of printed materials to reach around five million people.

The East African nation of nearly 54 million people has administered more than 15.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far and 13.5% of the population is fully vaccinated. Since the launch, the AOSK has worked through 80 sister-run health facilities with 240 sisters across the country to reach out to millions of Kenyans.

“The vaccine uptake has increased in our hospitals,” said Sr. Regina Nthenya Ndambuki, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa, who is also a nurse and a psychological counselor. “Before, some of our health care (facilities) could only vaccinate 10 people a day, but nowadays the number has gone up to 50 to 70 in a day.”

The East African nation of Uganda has experienced a low rate of vaccinations due to myths and misconceptions about the effects of vaccines. In a country of over 45 million people, it is estimated that roughly 5% of citizens have been vaccinated. Religious sisters have intensified the vaccination campaign to increase vaccine uptake.

Meanwhile, the foundation’s goal has also been to train and prepare sisters who work in the health care systems in the various countries to deal with other future pandemic and non-communicable diseases.

“We didn’t want sisters to come together just for the COVID-19 crisis,” said Angelique Mutombo, senior program officer, Catholic Sisters (Africa) at the Hilton Foundation. “We are very aware that there are also noncommunicable diseases that sisters could be working on, like high blood pressure, diabetes among others,” she said.

Mutombo said registering a network of religious sisters working in every country’s health care system would help sisters swiftly respond to any other type of pandemic in a coordinated way to protect life on the frontlines without being at risk.

“Our whole idea was to bring the sisters who work in the health care system into a network to respond to future pandemics in a very coordinated way,” she said.

https://www.globalsistersreport.org/news/coronavirus/news/sisters-africa-debunk-myths-and-educate-people-get-covid-19-vaccine

UK cost-of-living crisis reveals ‘hidden’ child poverty

A woman and children cast their shadows as they stroll in the sunshine on the Southbank in London, Britain September 19, 2015. REUTERS/Neil Hall

LONDON, – Kim dreads her children’s birthdays. When her son recently turned 11 she gave him a chocolate bar and a card – with food and fuel costs sky-rocketing, it was all she could afford.

The family’s north Wales home gets bitterly cold in winter, but heating remains a luxury.

Kim’s four sons – among 4.3 million British children living in poverty – walk round the house bundled in layers of clothing, dressing gowns and blankets, clutching hot water bottles.

“I try and make it out to be an adventure to them. But it’s not an adventure for anybody. They’re cold,” said Kim, whose husband lost his job as a builder six months into the pandemic.

Poorer families, already squeezed by years of austerity, are struggling more than ever as food prices surge – and things are set to get even tougher in April when energy bills soar by 54%.

Anti-poverty charities have called for urgent fixes to the country’s welfare system, saying growing numbers of families are being forced to choose between eating and heating, while parents like Kim skip meals so their children get enough.

“It’s shocking. We’re in 2022, living in an advanced country – apparently, but we’ve got families where people are starving,” Kim told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Inflation hit 5.4% in December, a 30-year-high, and could top 7% in coming months – welfare benefits will only rise 3.1% in April in what is the world’s fifth richest economy.

A likely increase in housing costs and a looming tax hike to help fund the country’s struggling health and social care systems will only add to the pressure.

The boss of budget supermarket Iceland, Richard Walker, made headlines recently when he said his stores were losing customers to food banks and hunger, amid rising food prices.

Kim, 37, used to cook everything from scratch, but is now reduced to feeding her children “cheap, processed crap”.

“That’s the only way I can describe it because it’s not food,” said Kim, who asked not to use her full name.

For two pounds ($2.70) she can put chicken nuggets, noodles and tinned beans on the table. Cooking a roast chicken with vegetables would cost more than four times that – money she does not have.

Kim and her husband miss most meals, surviving on toast.

It pains her to see the children missing out.

“Birthdays are heart-breaking,” she said. “What kid wants to open nothing on their birthday?”

RISE IN DESTITUTION

More than 31% of children in Britain were living in poverty in 2019/2020, up from 27% in 2013/14.

But the latest data predates COVID-19 and the jump in costs, which charities say have tipped yet more families into hardship.

Even before the pandemic, the numbers in extreme poverty had soared. More than a million households, including 550,000 children, experienced destitution in 2019, up 35% since 2017, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Child poverty rates are particularly high in single-parent homes, larger families and those from ethnic backgrounds.

Single mother Jo Barker-Marsh, 49, who lives with 12-year-old son Harry in the northern city of Manchester, said child poverty remained hidden in Britain with many families sliding into hardship after relationship breakdowns and job losses.

Ten years ago, she was a filmmaker earning a good salary. But as a single mother raising a son with special educational needs, she could not resume a full-time career.

She took a part-time cleaning job, but lost it as the pandemic struck.

“There’s shame and humiliation that comes with poverty,” Barker-Marsh said.

“People think they’re better than us. They accuse you of scrounging.”

Poverty is not only exhausting but physically painful, said Barker-Marsh, who like Kim has reduced what she eats.

“The cold radiates from the centre of your being. Because you can’t eat enough food, your body doesn’t operate properly. You go to bed freezing and wake up in pain.”

‘UNFIT FOR PURPOSE’

Kim and Barker-Marsh are part of a project called Covid Realities, spearheaded by the universities of York and Birmingham and the Child Poverty Action Group charity, which has charted the lives of low-income families during the pandemic.

A report published last month called for major reforms to the social security system, branding it “unfit for purpose”.

The government was praised at the start of the pandemic for temporarily boosting Britain’s Universal Credit welfare payment by 20 pounds a week, but it withdrew the top-up in October.

Anti-poverty campaigners want it restored urgently.

Dan Paskins of Save the Children UK said some European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands, had much lower child poverty rates.

This was largely due to better childcare support, so more parents were able to work, and higher welfare payments.

Britain, however, has seen significant cuts to social security in the last decade and is one of the world’s most expensive countries for childcare, Paskins said.

The Conservative government has rejected accusations of doing too little, pointing to measures worth 12 billion pounds to help struggling households and a 9-billion-pound package to counter rising energy costs.

But the massive hike in fuel prices, which will add hundreds of pounds to household bills, triggered further outrage this month after energy giants unveiled multi-billion-pound profits.

Some politicians have called for a windfall tax on their gains to help families facing fuel poverty.

Barker-Marsh said the higher bills meant she would have to sell her home, and accused energy suppliers of “dancing on the bodies of the poor”.

“My son is sick of being cold,” she said, her voice breaking.

“I’m really, really angry right now. There are so many of us. But no one is listening.”

https://news.trust.org/item/20220210145953-78k1z/

‘They pray all day long’: How religious sisters are helping people in need amid the Ukraine conflict

Religious sisters in Ukraine deliver supplies from Caritas. | Private archive.

For Sister Franciszka Tumanevych, the first day of the full-scale Russian invasion was the most difficult.

The 42-year-old member of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth told CNA that fear spread in Zhytomyr, the northern Ukrainian city where her convent is based, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to attack on Feb. 24.

“It was a shock, panic broke out. People were lining up for food, medicine, gasoline,” she recalled.

“But everything calmed down in the evening. Then the next day, we understood that we had to learn to live in war conditions, and we took up concrete work. For if you remain idle, it’s terrible. Now, we keep praying.”

Ukraine is an Eastern European country of 44 million people bordering Belarus, Russia, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.

Since Russian forces began their advance, more than 368,000 people have fled Ukraine, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have fought fierce battles in the north, east, and south of the country. Facing military setbacks and international condemnation, Putin told defense chiefs on Feb. 27 to put Russia’s nuclear forces on “special alert.”

Zhytomyr came under attack on the same day, when a Russian ballistic missile fired from nearby Belarus struck the city’s airport.

Tumanevych, who was born in the city, graduated in psychology, gained a doctorate in canon law, and served in the diocesan ecclesiastical court. Before this month’s Russian offensive, she organized meetings for families and worked with the Catholic charitable organization Caritas-Spes.

She is one of three sisters at her convent. The Caritas-Spes center where the sisters used to work is now closed, so they spend their days praying and making sandwiches for the city’s civilian defenders.

Tumanevych said that there was a great spirit of solidarity in Zhytomyr, which has a population of more than 260,000 people. The sisters have received phone calls from locals offering transportation and other forms of help. When Tumanevych went to donate blood for Ukraine’s wounded, she found more than 100 people waiting in line, so she vowed to return another day.

While performing their daily tasks, the sisters seek to pray constantly.

On Feb. 16, a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine, the sisters in Zhytomyr connected with 25 families through the videoconferencing app Zoom. Afterward, they decided to hold a communal prayer every evening.

“Now more and more people are joining for the rosary. Yesterday there were already 72 families, as well as our sisters from America, Italy and Great Britain,” Tumanevych said.

“And at the end of the rosary, we say that we can now go to sleep because sisters from America are taking over the duty,” she added.

Many local parishes host perpetual adoration, while priests hear confessions from morning to night.

The sisters pray the rosary especially for the conversion of President Putin, who was born on Oct. 7, 1952, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.

Tumanevych said that her mother, with whom she is constantly in touch, prayed as many as seven rosaries a day.

The Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth was founded in Rome in 1875 by Franciszka Siedliska, a Polish blessed also known as Maria of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

The congregation, which is dedicated to education and ministry to families, has six houses in Ukraine. But one was forced to close shortly after the invasion began. The two sisters in Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine, had to flee their convent and are making their way to Poland, where more than 150,000 people from Ukraine have sought refugee since Feb. 24.

In the besieged capital city of Kyiv, the congregation has a community of seven sisters. They have taken refuge in a church basement, where they are caring for around 100 people forced to evacuate their apartments.

“The sisters are with the people all the time,” Tumanevych said. “They pray all day long, and one of the nuns from the convent in Kyiv has lost her voice because they constantly pray.”

Although shops are closed, the sisters have been able to buy blankets and disposable plates. They also provide food, but fear it could run out.

The sisters continue to dream of life after the war. They hope to open a dormitory for female students that would help young women to discern whether they have vocations to marriage or religious life.

Tumanevych said: “I’m staying. This is my country, and I will defend it. With the rosary and sandwiches, and everything that can be done in these conditions.”

https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/250514/they-pray-all-day-long-how-religious-sisters-are-helping-people-in-need-amid-the-ukraine-conflict