As several African countries continue to grapple with spikes in Covid-19 cases, it remains difficult to foresee the Africa that will emerge from the virus. Does the pandemic present an opportunity “to reset Africa”, as suggested by the Nigerian entrepreneur Tony Elumelu, or will the continent’s leaders be faced with the same long-term challenges that have simply been exacerbated by the pandemic?
For months, Africa had escaped relatively unscathed as the global centre of the virus shifted from Asia to Europe to North America and South America. Yet we now know that the number of African infections and deaths is still rising. According to the World Health Organization back in July, 22 of Africa’s 54 countries found that cases had more than doubled in little over a month.
While the primary concern for policymakers should be the health of their citizens, the economic impact of Covid-19 is plain to see. The African Development Bank Group has projected that Africa’s GDP is to contract in 2020 by 1.7 percent in the baseline scenario, which assumes a substantial impact of the virus but over a short duration. The collapse in oil prices has hit Africa’s second and third largest economies – Nigeria and Angola – hard, while the collapse of tourism and a drop in demand for agricultural exports to Europe have devastated economies from Kenya and Ethiopia to Cote D’Ivoire, Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Across the globe, the pandemic has damaged international supply chains and many are in agreement that the future is, by necessity, regional. It is clear that economies are having to look inwards, considering how to best support local industry in order to navigate the impact of the ongoing pandemic. While the coronavirus may be a new phenomenon, supporting entrepreneurship and stimulating the diversification of African economies has been a long-term challenge.
As mentioned, the Nigerian entrepreneur Tony Elumelu has said “the pandemic presents an opportunity to reset Africa, create employment and eliminate poverty”, and that the continent must “embrace the new normal”, with disruption in every sector from the digital economy to logistics. He suggests that there is now a “unique opportunity for a united Africa as a strong regional bloc acting in a coordinated fashion”.
The fact that the launch of African Continental Free Trade Area has been delayed challenges Elumelu’s plea for strong regional coordination, however, we have seen some examples of a coordinated approach between African nations that does provide significant hope.
Cameroon has sent planes to the Democratic Republic of Congo to help that country get medical support its more remote areas, the African Development Bank has denoted $4 million to South Sudan to bolster its fragile health system, and the African Union has launched a medical supplies platform for all 54 African countries. This is designed to make medical supplies, test kits and protective equipment available across the continent.
Something extraordinary is needed, and there are growing calls for investment to encourage African SMEs to create local supply chains in communities to boost employment. SMEs currently account for 90% of all businesses in Africa. If a transformation is to take place, it will require investment and training across the board. SMEs need support, training and financing to deliver solutions for manufacturing, healthcare, energy, digital innovation, infrastructure, agriculture and other sectors.
It is programmes such as the Citizens Entrepreneur Development Programme launched by the Economics Association of Zambia which exemplify the type of initiative that will be needed across Africa in the post-Covid world. In partnership with investors, including the Zambian business African Green Resources chaired by Zuneid Yousuf, and local NGOs, the independent programme has mobilised $1 million to support small businesses through the provision of funds, skills, and access to markets. The scheme hopes to bring economic opportunities to all parts of Zambia.
It is obvious that much more is needed across the continent to stimulate growth, and while it remains extremely difficult to say with any great confidence that economies will be “reset” following the pandemic, it is clear that that when we do reach the other side it cannot simply be business as usual. Long-term challenges remain, and it is true that they have been compounded by the events of 2020, but I remain an optimist.
Peter Burdin, is the BBC’s former Africa Bureau Chief