We asked MTN, Andela and some other tech companies how they are responding to Coronavirus in Nigeria

After Microsoft revealed that two of its employees have been diagnosed with coronavirus, there’s a greater urgency in global tech to shield against the pandemic. Sequoia Capital, the biggest of names in Silicon Valley, has told its founders to prepare for “the black swan of 2020.

Nigeria, a hub of tech activity in Africa, has largely contained the virus. But how are companies, in fulfilling their responsibilities to staff, clients and shareholders, responding internally to these developments?

On normal Tuesdays, Michael Adeniran* or an assigned colleague from his company simply walks in with a contractor ID into MTN’s ‘Yellow Drome’ office in Lagos. But this week was different; security personnel at the gate told him the building was on lockdown for non-MTN staff.

Beginning this Monday, MTN stopped welcoming physical meetings at their network division office, TechCabal has learned.

An official email to contractor companies on Monday said meetings will now be held via electronic media “due to a management decision.”

MTN did not directly confirm this detail but told TechCabal that measures have been taken to minimise face-to-face meetings with visitors. “We now encourage the use of video calls and teleconference options,” the company said.

No timeline for a return to normalcy was stated in the email and there was no specific mention of coronavirus. But at the company’s premises, Adeniran was told unofficially that access was being denied due to the official Covid-19 update by Nigeria’s health authorities.

Corona comes for African commerce

Coronavirus has claimed over 3,300 lives out of more than 100,000 cases globally. For Africa, an immediate concern is to contain spread, but the pandemic is exerting a notable impact on businesses.

Kenya Airways has banned flights from Italy and has reportedly lost $8m a month since they stopped flying to China. Nigeria’s acclaimed preparedness has limited the infection to one case, but Cameroon – currently a volatile political environment – has confirmed a first case. There are now 4 cases in Senegal while Algeria has 17 cases.

Globally, the tech industry has felt the effect of the coronavirus outbreak. Among other things, the economy around events like Facebook’s F8 and Google’s I/O has been dealt a half-a-billion-dollar blow.

Before the announcement in Nigeria, the outbreak was already hurting tech-based businesses. How are larger, brick-and-mortar tech companies responding to the virus?

At least ten out of twenty-two Nigerian tech companies acknowledged TechCabal’s request for comments on their approach to handling last week’s announcement. These companies have substantial physical operations headquartered in Lagos.

Andela, Carbon, Chams, Zinox, Konga, Computer Warehouse Group (CWG), Softcom, Tek Experts, and MTN have provided concrete responses at the time of publication.

We asked for information on their remote work policies, whether foreign trips are being canceled or scaled-back, and other general measures for preventing operational disruption. Here’s what we have learned.

Sanitizers, temperature checks, canceled trips

At virtually every company that responded to our request, placing hand sanitizers at conspicuous stations is the first line of defence.

Computer Warehouse Group (CWG), a 600-staff ICT solutions firm, has set up a number of additional measures including routine environmental cleaning and daily temperature checks before staff clock in.

Their customer-facing employees are “advised to engage in e-meetings except it is compulsory to meet with their clients in person.”

CWG’s business trips especially to the Middle East and Asia have been put on hold (Besides China, South Korea and Iran are the hottest coronavirus spots in the world).

It’s a similar situation at Chams, an identity management company. While assignments within Lagos proceed as normal, foreign trips to the affected countries have been “technically suspended, pending when the epidemic is fully under control.”

At MTN, all non-essential international travel for all staff have been restricted until further notice. Ecommerce platform Konga and Zinox, its parent company, also said they have scaled back on foreign trips to other affected countries, mainly as a precautionary measure.

Intensified communications

Conspiracy theories and falsehoods abound about coronavirus; have you heard it can be cured by a hot bath? With social media replete with alternate theories on what the virus is and isn’t, companies have to set the right tone for their staff. 

Tek-Experts, an IT support company and a Microsoft partner in Nigeria, has “intensified communications around hygiene” and “have also designed and issued infographics to communicate prevention and care around the virus.” 

Software engineering company, Softcom, has been “very vocal” on awareness, in sharing “various communications across the organisation bringing awareness to the situation, as well as measures to stay safe.”

In controlled environments, broadcast messages can curb disinformation with the right information. 

To that effect, Zinox and Konga have set up “regular knowledge-sharing broadcasts through our internal communication channels to keep staff abreast of updates.”

A useful safety tip on coronavirus is to maintain social distancing. As a result, digital lending startup, Carbon, say they have taken steps to reduce contact with surfaces across their offices.

“Our biometric entry to the building has been replaced with card access,” a company representative said.

Using ERP systems, Chams say they are able to afford every staff the opportunity to work remotely as they deem fit. Does this reflect an industry-wide familiarity with remote work?

Remote work? Yes and No

Carbon and Andela have a clear articulation of their remote work policies.

Carbon has had a policy since 2019, with the current pandemic “reinforc[ing] our belief that flexible working arrangements are important.” For all its recent turbulence, Andela’s success across their 7 locations in Africa and North America over the last five years was built on remote and distributed work.

The situation is not quite the same with Zinox and Konga. “Staff predominantly have to be physically present at the offices and other areas of our operations,” the company said in a joint response.

However, some of their younger, more mobile staff have had to work from off-site locations as a result.

CWG’s remote work policy allows all staff to work from home twice a month. But in light of coronavirus, “staff currently with minor flu are advised to work from home.” In addition, handshakes within and outside the premises are best avoided.

While Softcom has made their remote work policy more flexible “to reduce our employees footprint and reduce the risk of contracting the virus,” Tek Experts say the nature of their business and “the peculiarity of the work tools we use” do not permit them to offer remote days to staff, even with the coronavirus scare.

Are they doing well?

These companies’ responses give an idea of how the wider tech industry in Nigeria is responding or should respond to the coronavirus risk. Enough is being done on the basics – sanitizers and communication – but there still appears some reluctance on more work flexibility.

Perhaps this is to be expected. Confidence is high that the emergency will be contained by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. Google trends results show progressive decline in search interests over the course of the week since the initial announcement.

But make no mistake; there remains a real threat as the virus has spread rapidly over the past week. Switzerland has recorded its first fatality and the US death toll has risen to 12.

It would be great to get responses from more tech companies, especially global companies with expansive operations in Nigeria whose staff often travel across the world. We contacted at least two companies in this category but got no reaction.

*Name changed to protect identity

Let us know how your company is responding to the coronavirus emergency: send a mail to alex@bigcabal.com

Alexander Onukwue Author

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