Kenya sets the pace in use of tech to ease travel

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Massive changes have been implemented at airports across the globe in the wake of a pandemic that has altered the way we do things in virtually every aspects of our lives. Countries have been compelled to innovate to make airports and travelling safe and help in fighting the Covid-19 menace.

Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) is no exception, having deployed latest technologies in screening and clearance of travellers.

Thanks to JKIA’s innovative approach to dealing with the challenges brought by the pandemic, visitors jetting into the country from other countries are now enjoying a 15-minute clearance duration, compared to several hours in other global airports.

Travellers have praised the clearance system at the airport as seamless and effective in detecting people with higher than normal temperatures while smoking out travellers with fake Covid-19 certificates.

When Digital Business visited the Covid-19 screening bay at the airport, automated cameras with inbuilt thermometers were measuring the temperatures of dozens of people in a queue, while displaying the results on a large screen.

"It makes it easy to identify someone with fever on the screen. I expected delays as in other airports in Africa, Europe, Asia and Americas but this is super-fast," said George Mutua, a local investor in the tourism sector who had landed from Duabi.

Antonia Filmer, a British business lady, reckons how the airport's digital coordination is speeding up passenger clearance compared to airports in Europe.

"On arrival in Nairobi just before entry into the immigration offices, our QR codes were scanned and linked to a temperature screening camera. The stream of passengers arrives and their temperature is displayed on the screen," she said.

The blockchain-based clearance solution known as Trusted Travel, has been hailed by the African Union (AU), through its health agency, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) as a game-changer in the control of the spread of Covid-19 in border posts.

Kenya is the first country on the continent to use the innovation for efficient management of air travels, having been approved on January 9 by the Ministry of Health to help verify Covid-19 test certificates for travellers while harmonising entry and exit screening.

Africa CDC Director Dr John Nkengasong acknowledged Kenya's robust technology ecosystem, where blockchain and machine learning are being used to address challenges in various sectors, saying that such an advantage will be key to getting the country's air industry back to profitability.

Last week, Kenya acquired three robots from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which have the capacity to scan between 10 and 100 people per minute from a distance of up to 3.5 metres, with one being used at the airport to help in faster entry and exit out of the country.

"Kenya has always been a trailblazer of innovation in Africa, but it is its commitment to continental integration that makes our collaboration on digital health through Trusted Travel such a powerful showcase of Pan-African innovation," he told Digital Business.

One of the developers of the system is Nairobi-based machine learning startup Koldchain, which has in the past relied on tech researchers from Harvard University to blend Big Data analytics, blockchain and thermosensitive polymers to monitor vaccines and biotech for breaches, preventing fraud in the process.

This, Dr Nkengasong said, is a perfect example of how the country is spearheading the use of emerging technologies in the continent to tame the virus. He urged other African nations to follow suit and adopt the free innovation from the AU.

The web-based application allows travellers to upload their Covid-19 test results online for easy verification by airport health and travel officials, while detecting forged certificates. It relies on algorithms to track and trace people facing potential health threats while keeping tabs on test samples from countries of origin to the in-country labs.

"As our economies, schools and borders re-open, Africa needs a harmonised approach to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission. This is why we launched this portal as an innovative digital tool to help member states harmonise entry and exit requirements to prevent cross-border transmission on the continent," said Amira Mohammed, Commissioner for Social Affairs, African Union Commission.

Trusted Travel also provides information on requirements at the departure and destination ports and access to a list of government approved laboratories for coronavirus testing in African countries.

This, Africa CDC is confident, will help establish trust and confidence in test results among government authorities, airlines, transport services operators and other stakeholders in the transport sector across the continent.

Experts say without such a system, the proliferation of user-tampered and fake test and vaccine certificates could undermine efforts to minimise cross-border infections while hampering trans-border economic activities.

And with Africa's cyberspace becoming vulnerable to hackers every day, Africa CDC says the portal is secured and safe "and has been developed using international standards of cybersecurity and data protection protocols."

Other partners involved in providing oversight for implementation of the Trusted Travel Initiative include the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations Development Programme, African Civil Aviation Commission, Airport Council International–Africa, African Airlines Association, and the International Air Transport Association.

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