COVID-19: An Opportunity for Africa

COVID-19: An Opportunity for Africa

COVID-19 has not only created a health crisis; it has metamorphosed into an enormous economic situation that will have far-reaching impact now and even in the long term. It has exposed the weaknesses in the world’s systems we have grown to trust, testing the very fibers of globalization and its essence, and forcing leaders to have a rethink about what matters most and why. 

Since the worldwide outbreak began in February 2020, it has literally brought global productivity to a halt, with collective efforts focusing significantly on survival measures. A number of organisations have had to quickly transform their manufacturing outlets into fit-for-purpose production lines for COVID-19 medical equipment or protective kits such as masks, alcohol disinfectants, gloves etc. Even hotels have stepped up to provide their spaces as makeshift hospitals to bridge the gaps created by inadequate medical facilities.

In parts of Africa, there’s an additional layer of security challenges emanating from youth unrest. Africa is the youngest continent, having about 80% of its population less than 35 years old with over 50% of them being unemployed or underemployed. While there are many underlying factors to blame including youths themselves, in reality, this translates into the fact that there are able-bodied young men and women, most of whom are willing but unable to maximize their potential mostly due to lack of, and access to opportunities.

In Lagos, one of the most vibrant cities on the continent, prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, a number of these young fellows wake up in the morning and head to the streets for ‘collection’ from public transport players: cab and bus drivers, tricycle riders and motorcyclists. They act as quasi modern-day tax collectors, who harass these players and are often blamed for the hike in prices. 

Additionally, a lot more do daily menial jobs from which they get something to ‘carry hold body’ (to keep body and soul together). They leave in the morning with just the transport fare to get to their place of business and some cannot even afford a meal until they have made their first sale of the day. Since they hardly make enough money to even sustain their basic lifestyles, there’s often no savings left. Did I hear you say investment?

Again we have the young entrepreneurs who are trying to build something across sectors. Many have realized that there are no jobs hiding anywhere and that an engineer can actually be a great tailor. Some are in the tech space hoping to hit the next Airbnb-kind-of-idea, or become the next Mark Zuckerberg. A few have gotten some investment and exposure here and there. However, the story remains the same: young Africans generally feel betrayed and somewhat helpless, lacking opportunities and access to capital, and those in Lagos are not left out of this dilemma. 

With the initial two weeks stay-at-home directive by the government, there were already murmurings about the inability of different groups of people to cope. The government announced some relief packages to be distributed to the most vulnerable but as expected, this will hardly suffice. By the last week of the directive, some young chaps had started taking advantage of the situation to help themselves through criminal activities. The spate of armed robbery attacks had gone up, with communities and streets reporting invasions by groups of 200 or more coming in single attacks.

Now that the Federal Government of Nigeria has issued an additional two weeks of extended lockdown directive, one will begin to wonder what new turns the security challenges will take, and how people will cope without savings and no new business from which to earn money. Without discounting the Federal Government’s announcement of plans to expand the relief support to more households, if there were already significant turbulence in the first two weeks, how will we manage the next two weeks, bringing the stay-at-home to one full month? 

Of course, as a matter of urgency, just as many people have cried out, the expectation is that the government will put more effort into security of lives and property this period. As with the COVID-19 hotlines, security hotlines need to be working effectively at this time. If not handled properly, breaches in security will eventually affect the social distancing rules and cause a total breakdown of health and order.

However on a long term view, the government and indeed all key players including the private sector, civil society and academia will need to develop innovative approaches towards Africa’s sustainable development. Drawing from the Milken Institute’s Prosperity Formula, the development strategy must focus on four focal elements: human capital, social capital, real assets and financial innovation.

Coming right from the continent are organisations such as Mo Ibrahim Foundation, LEAP Africa, Co-Creation Hub, WeForGood International and many more that have stepped up to play their part. For example, WeForGood International, an innovative tech company that brings people together to act on causes they care about, launched the Sustainable Solutions Africa Project in 2019. Through this project, the organisation provided coaching, training and funding to young entrepreneurs who in turn impact over 500,000 people. 

While these are great, there is more to be done for significant impact to be made on the continent. More than anything else, the governments must provide an enabling environment for innovation to thrive. Directly tied to this is the need to set policies in place that allow for positive exploitation of human capital, social capital, real assets and financial innovation in a way that ensures predictable prosperity. 

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic presents our continent with an opportunity to rethink our place and strategy, with the realization that a prosperous Africa is not only possible and good for this generation and for those yet unborn, but it is essential for our sustainability as a people in every sense of the word. 

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