The World Economic Forum (WEF) on May 11 suggested that there are three ways the Covid-19 pandemic could actually spark a better future for Africa. The three sparks that could light a flame include: strengthening the health sectors, rethinking social protection for the vulnerable and industrialisation.
Since most countries attained independence, leaders from virtually every African country have travelled abroad for medical services, leaving their people at the mercy of dilapidated health systems. Covid-19 brought forth the fact that during a pandemic African countries are on their own, and that the people and their leaders are in the same boat. That fact will undoubtedly force a rethink to prioritize investment in health systems.
With a large informal sector, issues like social protection for the vulnerable has never featured in policy frameworks but the pandemic has forced it into a top policy consideration. Indeed, WEF acknowledges Kenya and Equatorial Guinea as two African states that are offering excellent examples of countries that have regulated and put in place social protection systems that will survive and outlast our battle against this common enemy.
The crisis forced quick innovations, with some universities coming up with contraptions of ventilators. The WEF article noted that the continent’s poor pharmaceutical capacity has been a source of amazement to locals and foreigners alike. Bangladesh, a poorer country than many African countries, produces 97 percent of the national demand for medicines in contrast to Africa, which is almost 100 percent dependent on imports. Several other articles on post pandemic Africa that came out in May such as the McKinsey’s report, ‘‘Reopening and reimagining Africa: How the Covid-19 crisis can catalyse change’’, highlight similar opportunities presented by the crisis. The continent, therefore, must ride on the wave of creativity and innovation to build a sustainable manufacturing sector.
The people have proven the fact that they do not have to import some of the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) required mostly in the healthcare sector.
Already, Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) through the National Standards Council has in the recent past developed some specifications on critical care ventilators, reusable cloth masks and a standard on protective clothing for the purpose of building local capacity to mitigate against the pandemic.
The crisis has shown the critical importance of self-reliance that many of the simple imports that Africa imports from other countries should cease.
If the continent builds better supply chains, better value addition and reduced waste especially in food, Africa could easily be self-sufficient in food. The current food import bill of $35 billion according to Africa Development Bank could be converted into capital to develop a resilient manufacturing sector.
Unlike in the past, WEF has rightfully noted that African States are developing strategic and in-depth approaches to human development, regional integration, digitisation, industrialisation, economic diversification, fiscal and monetary policies, and international solidarity. In short, they are rethinking the causes of the continent's underdevelopment and coming up with feasible solutions.
Africa’s underdevelopment is partly caused by failure to integrate trade within the continent. Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), noted in a recent article that the share of intra-African exports as a percentage of total African exports has increased from about 10 percent in 1995 to around 17 percent in 2017, but it remains low compared to levels in Europe (69 percent), Asia (59 percent), and North America (31 percent).
Africa’s internal market, not exports to other places, will matter more for the continent’s growth. It means that the growing digitalization will grow Africa-specific solutions such as mobile money just as China’s startups in the digital space have grown within a very short period of time.
The news about the delay of the start date from July 1, 2020 to next year does not reflect desire to see Covid-19 as a spark for a renewed Africa. The pandemic has opened African eyes that in a crisis most countries retreat to their core constituency. The continent must arise and invest in health systems, respond to emerging crises with innovation and seek to become self-reliant. Basic necessities like medicine, food and other essentials should be manufactured locally.
The launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area must be fast-tracked irrespective of the state that we are in, specifically the coronavirus pandemic, to ensure continental self-sufficiency.