COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa: A new dawn arises

Efe Ukala Apr 13, 2020 at 02:00pm

April 13, 2020 at 02:00 pm | Opinions & Features

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Efe Ukala

April 13, 2020 at 02:00 pm | Opinions & Features

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

Modern history has not been kind to Africans, objective evaluation by most metrics will illustrate a series of unfortunate events and outcomes. Some of these harms have been self-inflicted whilst others have been imported, but the fact remains socio-economic progress and development has eluded most Africans and Africa either by design or by fate in most of the world’s recent history. COVID-19 presents, yet, another economic challenge for Africa.

This threat will, without doubt, be extended to Africa’s economy. However, the justifiable fear is that Africa will take the biggest, longest and deepest socio-economic hit from the aftermath of COVID-19. This is potentially true; however, the post-COVID-19 era could be a major turning point for Africa.

The Sun Sets

COVID-19 has highlighted the heightened need for Africa to become more self-sufficient, especially as it relates to food production, healthcare, and logistics. For example, the travel ban in most countries during this pandemic makes it almost impossible for the usual Africa’s elite’s de rigueur of turning to continents to meet their personal healthcare needs – its citizens are now forced to rely on their well-established, or in some unfortunate cases, not-well established healthcare infrastructure.

COVID-19 also threatens Africa’s ability to rely on food importation as a requirement for survival as opposed to an option for diversity and trade. In a recent report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations expressed its concern about COVID-19’s impact on “vulnerable communities already grappling with hunger or other crises – [highlighting] the Desert Locust outbreak in the Horn of Africa.”

Mono-product economies, “countries that depend on primary exports like oil” to feed their population’s needs, are also in jeopardy. Sadly, the report predicts disruptions in the global food supply chain due to restrictions of movement that may impede farmers and food processors productivity, with the most impacted populations being the poorest countries.

Post-COVID-19, it can be expected that other continents will dedicate their resources on their economies for self-preservation. Further exacerbating potential shortages to African economies already at risk and disadvantaged. To grapple with these challenges and address its unmet infrastructure and food production needs, Africa’s entrepreneurs must utilize this time to ideate innovative solutions for the new era. Africa must therefore, rise

Similarly, social distancing polices implemented by various African governments to minimize the impact of COVID-19 already has negative economic effects on the continent as with the rest of the world but is exacerbated in Africa.

In the educational sector, for example, African students have been forced to return home during this pandemic. Unlike their peers in other continents, home schooling is often not an option for the majority as they do not have access to consistent power supply, internet connectivity or even computers / laptops that would connect them to their teachers. As a result, most African student’s education are impromptu on pause– they may not be privileged to graduate when their peers elsewhere in the world do. 

In addition, recent pro bono businessresiliency trainings hosted by ImpactHER for about 500 female-led small and medium sized enterprise across 30 African countries so as to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses revealed that African entrepreneurs (like their counterparts in other economies) have also been forced to shut down operations or branches of their businesses indefinitely and also layoff their staff in order to manage their financial obligations. This does not bode well for an economy where  its 13 million micro, small and medium sized businesses (both formal and informal) plays a critical role in its growth story and for the gender parity which could help boast Africa’s GDP by about 12%.

Africa’s Backbone is Even More Fragile

Small and medium sized female owned enterprises will be even more negatively impacted. Pre-COVID-19, female small and medium sized business owners lagged behind in accessing financing needed to grow their businesses with only 16-20% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa being able to access long term financing from formal institutions.Yet, according to the African Development Bank, women entrepreneurs “form the backbone of African economies, accounting for a majority of small- and medium-sized businesses, dominating the agriculture sector as primary producers and food processors.”

It is, therefore, difficult to imagine the disturbing effects that COVID-19 will present to the African economy and female entrepreneurs when worlds’ capital pool is limited or diverted to address the impact of COVID-19. While Africa remains one of the continents with the fewest reported cases of COVID-19, the post-pandemic economic impact will be dire, just like Africa experienced in aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, if Africa fails to rise now.

The Light for Africa at the End of the Tunnel /or A New Dawn Arises

This is no time for Africa’s entrepreneurs to lick the economic wounds inflicted by COVID-19 as when reviewed objectively, Africa’s economic problems not insurmountable. COVID-19 presents, yet another opportunity, for Africa to ignite its entrepreneurship spirit while also providing pragmatic African solutions that address Africa’s infrastructure, human capital, and technology needs.

African entrepreneurs, especially those that are already negatively impacted by COVID-19, should utilize this time to ideate solutions for post-COVID-19 Africa. This might require just a slight change in the entrepreneur’s business model and strategy or a complete revamp of the business strategy. 

The post-COVID-19 era is likely to awaken Africa’s appetite for investment in infrastructure that allows Africa to be self-reliant and the need for technology-enabled solutions that are easily scalable to meet the needs of Africa’s large population.

Balancing these currently unmet needs with people’s preferences or consciousness for personal space might become even more imperative. A heightened awareness for personal space might impact the way people perceive social activities. For example, there might be a preference for technology-enabled solutions such as:

  • More EdTech solutions to meet Africa’s education need, such as locally manufactured affordable solar-powered or hybrid-powered laptops (which helps to combat Africa’ electricity problem) made from Africa’s recycled plastics or materials;
  • Agri-tech solutions, which would allow Africa to engage in more scalable food production;
  • Locally manufactured food storage systems (using solar power or controlled-temperature) to help keep fruits and vegetables fresh for a longer period of time;
  • Online gyms/ exercise classes that leverage virtual reality technology, therefore, allowing people to work out with others and in groups but without necessarily interfacing with others physically;
  • There might be an increased need for virtual telemedicine and tech-pharma solutions, which would allow people consult with pharmacist and have their medicines delivered to their door step without meeting the pharmacist physically;
  • 3D printers to manufacture local equipment to help Africa meet its healthcare needs (e.g. manufacturing of tissue for skin burn victims, replica organs, etc);
  • More affordable mini-power grids comprising of locally manufactured energy generation and storage devices;
  • Virtual reality-based cinemas that allows people in different locations to watch movies at the smile time while verbally communicating with each other; and
  • Reliable logistics would become even more critical than ever given that most of the innovation solutions would need to be delivered.

The post-COVID-19 era holds a lot of promise for Africa and its entrepreneurs and African entrepreneurs should seize the opportunity to ideate and device how they can provide pragmatic solutions for Africa. Moreover, such ideation processes can be executed digitally, using collaborative tools, which we are forced to embrace during this pandemic. 

Charting Africa’s Way to Economic Freedom

COVID-19 presents another opportunity for innovative solutions to societies problems. The post-COVID-19 era in Africa will require intentional and collaborative efforts to bridge Africa’s infrastructure, human capital and gender entrepreneurship financing gap so that Africa’s GDP potential is reached.

The new era will also require extremely innovative solutions to match the unprecedented need that COVID-19 unveils. Moreover, institutional investors’ appetite for innovative solutions will also be heightened. But as appetite for innovation solutions heightens, institutional investors will need to be deliberate about investing in African female-led businesses and clearly illustrate preferences for idea driven societies – the economy’s backbone cannot be ignored.

Much of the developed world has reached a plateau in physical development capacity, Africa, therefore, presents the most logical and credible room for financial returns on physical growth and economic advancement.

COVID-19 presents an opportunity for Africa to reset and to address infrastructural and institutional challenges, as well as address gender entrepreneurship financing gap. The time to start is now! The African people are resilient and can rise above all unwavering tides. Africa Must Rise!

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