THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC: Prospects and challenges for Africa

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As I sit quietly pondering ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic, I can also see lots of opportunities that are equally begging to be utilised by Africa. I see this pandemic as both an opportunity and a wake-up call for Africa to reposition itself as an economic force to reckon with globally.

As is typical of us Africans, many have blamed this pandemic on other people – including satanic machinations. The deliberate attempt by the West to focus and wrap our minds on baseless conspiracy theories such as the debilitating effect of electromagnetic waves from the 5G evolution cannot just be considered as hogwash but mind-boggling. The few on the continent who have refused to accept this analogy will soon be demonised and relegated to the background.

A case in point was the 2007/2008 financial crisis that largely did not affect Africa. During this crisis, our international analysts, advisors and academics on the African continent occupied themselves with the task of espousing concepts and theories that could stem the tide in the West instead of advising African businesses and leaderships on how to position themselves and take advantage of the economic fall-outs from the West.

Do not get me wrong: I am not espousing or in favour of a concept of neglect for the West, since the world has become a global village and a care centre for all mankind. Any action or inaction on the part of any one group could be detrimental and contagious in one form or another.

The question is: how long do we have to continue on this tangent of being too obsessive with what happens in the West? The fact is the West hardly cares about Africa. Looking down memory lane, many will attest to the fact that Africa has had to grapple with very terrible pandemic situations – including cholera and Ebola epidemics that nearly wiped out and threatened the survival of many cities and towns in Africa.  For instance, what was the response of the West during the Ebola crisis in West Africa?

The West evacuated their people in droves from Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the epicentres. Africans who could afford lifestyles and cost of living in the West also left in droves on first-class and business-class tickets. I remember a high-ranking cabinet official of Liberia who left for the West amid the Ebola crisis and refused to come back to Africa; to the point he ended up being relieved of office by the then president. Amid the current coronavirus pandemic, it would appear that the West is evacuating its citizens from some African countries, including Ghana.

All employees of the multinationals who come from the West are also gone with their expertise, leaving behind employees of African ethnicity and locals who are technically challenged by virtue of the fact that most of these local employees have not been given the opportunity to occupy strategic positions that would enable and facilitate technology and knowledge transfer to them. These expatriates have gone to join and add to the strength of their people as call-ups or reservists to produce goods such as PPEs and offer services that are needed by their countries at this crucial time.

As if this was not enough, President Trump has threatened to invoke and activate emergency powers that would restrict American companies including 3M to producing essential goods for the consumption of only Americans at this crucial time. What is Africa’s leverage amid this pandemic? How does Africa get its PPEs and other essential goods during this global lockdown when virtually every country has closed its borders?

It would appear from the foregoing that the ramifications of current actions by the West and these multinationals and their implications on the production and supply of goods and services, by extension, the survival of our economies on the African continent could be dire – in both the short- and medium-terms now that the global supply chain of goods and services has been significantly disrupted.

The Way forward and Prospects for Africa                          

Having bemoaned the approach by our analysts, advisors and academicians in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2007/2008, I want to avoid the temptation of falling into the same swamp of lamentation and focus my energy and pondering on advocating pragmatic solutions for tackling the snowballing effect of the many years of haphazard policies that has plagued our economies and threatens our global competitiveness. Critical among my considerations are agriculture, manufacturing and trade, infrastructure development, research, innovation and technology.

Agriculture

I propose that we Africans must revisit our traditional concepts of farming and agro-processing such as ‘Operation Feed Yourself’, a concept introduced by General Kutu Acheampong, the late President of the Republic Ghana – whereby individuals including white-collar employees/employers were encouraged to produce and feed themselves and their families and the country at large.

Essentially, leadership of the various African economies need to create accurate databases of all our micro- and small-scale farmers in our rural, peri-urban and urban areas. This should be followed by a needs-assessment of these farmers coupled with development of state-of-the-art but pragmatic models to train, re-tool and equip these farmers with improved seeds, seedlings, breeding stock and simple machines – using the various local government extension officers as the implementers, monitors and evaluators, devoid of bureaucratic/political snags and aspersive tendencies.

The construction of barns, warehouses and silos at vantage and accessible points to stock up the excess food produced to serve as buffer stocks during unfavourable periods, such as pandemics and drought, must be a vital consideration in the value chain. Exporting some of these excess stocks could also largely reduce our dependence on foreign supply chains, and hence improve our balance of trade as well as other subsequent impacts on our local currencies and job creation. It is of essence to note that as much as I am in favour of mechanised and state-sponsored farming to enhance food security and balance of trade, the ripple-effect in terms of job creation when the individual micro- and small-scale farmers are nurtured and resourced cannot be overstated.

Fresh graduates from our tertiary and vocational institutions must be conscientised, re-oriented, retrained and equipped to go into micro- and small-scale farming. All of this, will enhance the nations’ food security and job creation on a wide scale.

Agriculture as a tool for the socio-economic development of Africa must be emphasised, and made compulsory in all practical terms as much as possible in our teaching and learning curricula at both basic and tertiary levels. Governments through local authorities must work hand-in-hand with chiefs and traditional leaders in creating the enabling environment and security needed in acquiring farmlands and other societal support for these prospective farmers. Tax holidays and other incentives in the form of regular training programmes for farmers to acquire contemporary skills that will enhance crop and animal yield and preservation ought to be encouraged and provided.

Laudable initiatives by governments on the continent such as the One District, One Factory (1D1F) and the Planting and Rearing for Food and Jobs concepts in Ghana and the small, medium and large agro-processing factories being built by countries such as South Africa and Botswana must be adopted by other countries on the continent, as a matter of urgency, to enhance value addition and revenue generation from agriculture products.

Take the classic case of Ghana and Ivory Coast which together produce about 60% of the world’s cocoa beans – but rake in less than 20% of revenue generated annually from the same cocoa beans. This scenario and other unfavourable ones must be reversed in the short to medium term by adopting value-added production models if Africa is to make any meaningful progress on its agriculture front.

Manufacturing and Trade

Though a lot has been achieved on the manufacturing front in terms of production for plastics and plastic-related products, Africa must step up to the plate in manufacturing both basic and complex goods.  More than 90% of people living on the continent rely on fabric and clothing from the West and the East. The least said about vehicles, equipment and machinery the better. Virtually everything comes from the West and the East.

The question is: how does Africa cope and survive the current coronavirus pandemic amidst the widespread lockdown and disruption in the global supply chain? The good news is that prior to the coronavirus pandemic, countries like Ghana, Kenya and few others had taken the initiative to collaborate with some of blue-chip companies in the West to set up vehicular assembly plants in their respective countries. South Africa seems to have passed the test for what is required of a country in this contemporary time in the production of machinery and equipment.

South Africa has a lot of car manufacturing and assembly plants. Passenger car models manufactured in South Africa in 2018 included the BMW 3-Series 4-door and X3; the Ford Everest; Mercedes-Benz C-Class 4-door; Toyota Corolla 4-door new and previous series and Fortuner; and the Volkswagen Polo new and previous series. Vehicle manufacturers such as BMW, Ford (incorporating Mazda), General Motors, Mercedes Benz, Nissan, Renault, Toyota and Volkswagen have production plants in South Africa. Zimbabwe also has a vibrant car assembly plant for the Mazda and BAIC brands.

I am an advocate and believer in small beginnings such as the micro and small scale manufacturing nets, ghettos, kiosks and centres that have sprung up over the past decades; but these have had to grapple with the unfavourable production climates and factors such as high cost of capital, lack of state intervention schemes and rentals among others on the continent. Consider the case of a typical bakery in a ghetto that produced an average of 100 loaves of bread daily for the past 10 years. This bakery could be producing at an increase of 20 percentage point on year on year basis if it had received basic support in terms of training and funding to acquire more refined but basic equipment, such as ovens with multiple-trays to enhance quantity and quality at the bakery.

The Ministries of Trade and Industries and Business Development through their parastatals should create a database at the various local government areas of all micro and small scale ventures. This should be followed by a needs assessment of these ventures and subsequent development models to train and equip them with contemporary production techniques at local incubation hubs. These micro and small scale producers and manufacturers could also be supported through microfinance houses and state intervention schemes to acquire simple machines and raw materials that will enhance quantity, quality and job creation at the grassroots.

The incubation hubs, in collaboration with the Ministries of Trade, should organise promotional fairs for products and services at both the local and national levels to enable these ventures showcase their products and services. Bilateral and multi-lateral trade relations and agreement should also be heightened to facilitate both continental and intercontinental trade for the goods and services produced in each country of the continent. This support model should be adopted for deployment in enhancing the existing few but huge manufacturing plants and industrial hubs on the continent as well.

Graduates from both tertiary and vocational institutions must be supported and encouraged to undertake internship with these micro and small scale ventures, during which they will learn to operate these simple machines. Active and ambitious interns will venture into such micro enterprises on completion of their courses without necessarily roving the city centres searching for white-collar jobs.

The multiplier effect in terms of job creation at the grassroots level through these interventions may not only be huge compared to a few but large manufacturing plants, but also sustainable. It will also lessen the countries’ dependence on foreign goods and make them self-reliant – especially in critical times.

Research, Innovation and Technology

In crises like this, research, innovation and technology impact greatly on a nation’s ability to stem the tide. Many economies on the continent are lacking state-of-the-art research institutes to develop innovative ways of coping with pandemics and minor diseases. Even if they exist, they are poorly-resourced. The upper-class on the continent continues to seek medical care from the West and East – at times with the taxpayers’ money to the detriment of the majority who pay taxes.

Those monies could have been invested in upgrading health facilities to match those in the West and the East and enhance health delivery for all. Efforts being made currently by many African countries, including Ghana, to rehabilitate, equip and upgrade existing healthcare facilities deserve commendation, though. Better late than never!

Our educational system and structures are of no exception. Pupils are seen on national television lying on the floor with their stomachs to learn and write due to lack of furniture in this day and age. Sadly, the leaderships are not moved by these scars. Kudos to the current leaderships in Ghana and Kenya who have taken the bull by the horns to immensely invest in both basic and secondary education – not only for the relief of parents and guardians, but also to enhance teaching and learning. An effort, that is worthy of praise and should be adopted by all economies if Africa is to make any significant strides on its educational front. We encourage the pacesetters to stay the course.

The health systems of Liberia, Sierra Leon and DR Congo were put to the test during the Ebola crisis, and we are all witnesses of the extent to which these health systems have stood the test of time. The less we talk about the recent outbreak of cholera and typhoid in Zimbabwe the better.  Our brothers and sisters had to contend with a do or die situation.

In the end the former won, but infections still recur in selected towns/ cities. The systems were crashed. Many including our healthcare staffs lost their lives in these countries. The approach and efforts that are being made to deal with pandemics such as cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM), lassa fever and cholera among others on the continent have had little impact. These pandemics which largely plague the continent do not receive global attention – with little continental attention.

I propose that the existing state research institutions on the continent must as a matter of urgency be well-resourced with the needed expertise, and funded adequately by governments and institutions on the continent. We can no longer continue to rely on grants from the West and the East to fund and support our research institutions. Funding for these institutions must receive the needed priority in state budgets. This will enable them to advance research into both ‘known knowns and known unknowns’. The focus must not be on only state institutions but also privately funded ones which are struggling to compete with institutions in the West and the East – such as Bloom Energy, Abbott Laboratories, Astrazeneca and Livzon Group.

As observed in the East, the deployment of technology to drive learning, research and innovation in these intuitions must also be promoted and adequately funded in the interest of speed. The establishment of both private and public competency-based training and learning centres must be encouraged to improve the practical skills of youth on the continent. These competency-based centres could become micro-hubs for the production and repair of simple machines that would evolve into the big and sophisticated ideas/equipment and machinery for the enhancement and sustainability of the continental production and supply chain of goods and services.

Infrastructure Development

With each passing day, reports on rising total confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to dominate the global consciousness.  As at 9th April 2020, 1.6 million cases have been confirmed in the whole world – and the novel coronavirus is now present on every continent except for Antarctica.

To flatten the curve for number of infections, many countries on the continent have asked their citizens to stay home or self-quarantine. In Ghana, the leadership has asked millions of people around Greater Accra and Greater Kumasi to self-quarantine in their homes, while infrastructure and transportation systems that bonded us locally and nationallyare being used more sparingly; at least, currently. It would be prudent for government to accelerate the development of infrastructure, since there is less usage of the amenities. For instance, the Ministry of Education could use this period to expedite action on dormitory expansion and rehabilitation projects in Senior High Schools. Infrastructure works and plans had received a significant attention before the coronavirus pandemic; however, their socio-economic importance in Ghana has come into greater focus during the crisis and are beginning to shape the response, too.

As governments look to provide economic relief and rescue packages, they must also pay special attention to infrastructure development. Since there is a partial lockdown and there are less movements of goods and people, mass infrastructure opportunities such as sea port expansion, airport expansion, lake transportations systems, railway systems, slum-rehabilitations, school expansions, domestic water system expansions and roads and highway systems can be developed quickly. In furtherance, this instant offers us prospects we might never witness again.

The time to jumpstart long-term infrastructure developments in population-dense areas is now. Hiring, training, contract extensions and accommodating a new generation of infrastructure contractors would assist to steer our recovery and create a stronger, more resilient infrastructure system for the future. It appears infrastructure is not an immediate priority in the middle of this crisis on the continent.

I strongly suggest that subsequent COVID-19 stimulus packages should consider infrastructure development projects. These projects may create jobs to resuscitate the economies after the pandemic considerably. This pandemic has changed our public and private transportation demeanour. It sets a tone for new policies in our transportation system to be implemented. The underlining factor of these policies would be infrastructure sustenance. In essence, the longevity of our infrastructure developments.

In the book now going viral ‘Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World’, Dahlia Schweitzer notes that progress has made us sick: the proliferation of roads, airports, and other critical infrastructure has made us more globally connected and susceptible to being affected by events happening on the other side of the world. Notwithstanding, we should not forget that our population keeps increasing and our dependence on these infrastructure facilities are critical to our survival.

Conclusion and Admonishment

It is obvious from the forgoing that the surging challenges facing Africa could be dealt with if both the leadership and the people take concrete and bold steps to devise solutions and strategies to counter the challenges, taking into cognisance the culture, nature, scope andthe wealth of the African setting. Any development model that ignores these considerations will yield little impact or fail completely. Development must be done the African way, and improved or added on through the adoption of development concepts from the West and East which fit the African paradigm.

The politicking, scheming, intriguing and blame-games must halt on all sides -parties in power and in opposition. Both the leaderships and governances prior to the pandemic and now are responsible for Africa’s current status quo. All African citizens including technocrats, public and civil servants and civil society organisations must get to work. This is not the time to pay lip-service, over-criticise on talk shows, but rather time to act and support the current leaderships in correcting the off-beam. All hands must be on deck!

Technocrats working at various government agencies and parastatals who have over the years deliberately obliterated and thwarted initiatives of the ordinary African youth and entrepreneurs due to their parochial interests must desist from such malicious acts. The annihilation caused by these singular acts to Africa’s development evidently abounds on the continent. In fact, as a matter of urgency, the current African leaderships must take steps to re-orientate the minds of staff working in these agencies in line with their development agendas, in the interest of all.

The masses must also desist from making unsavoury remarks and buying into gibberish conspiracy theories, but rather redirect their energy into innovation and invention as shown by a few in this crucial time on the continent. The invention drives by Jude Osei Kelvin in the production of a solar-powered handwashing sink and the COVID-19 prevention electronic bucket produced by Owusu Dapaah and Richard Boateng, all from, Ghana are classical and good initiatives that must be embraced by all.

Both the existing and emerging entrepreneurs must be encouraged to collaborate, speed up and scale up. The examples of Colgate-Palmolive and others in the West, whereby resources are being matched to support the system at this crucial time, should serve as a lesson to the African entrepreneur that synergy delivers not just status and profit but also saves and sustains humanity in critical times. After all, businesses thrive on numbers. The survival of the human race is of course crucial for these initiatives and businesses.

African analysts and academics must spend more time and energy on analysing and advising the African leaderships and masses on the intricacies of new global development models and their implications for African economies if adopted. The funding needs for research, learning, initiatives and development ought to receive priorities in National budgets. Development banks including the African Development Bank and other funding agencies on the continent, through their country offices, need to interact with the grassroots to identify prospects and initiatives for funding – instead of always deploying the top-down approach whereby they always fund initiatives through central governments.

Laudable economic rescue packages being offered to businesses by governments ought to be streamlined and targetted to achieve their intended impact. Those in charge of administering the social reliefs must ensure pandemic control protocols – including social distancing and good hygiene practices – are strictly adhered to.

Several videos going viral from many countries showing flagrant disregard for these protocols are not encouraging. Africa is endowed with enough resources to look after its people. It is time we looked within to solve our problems. Our dependence on the West and others has never helped and will never help.

The Coronavirus pandemic has offered us an opportunity to assess our development fundamentals and take a holistic approach to address the lapses once and for all. A visionary leadership is one that foresees an opportunity and devises strategy to implement it before it arrives. We might never have another opportunity. The next pandemic may assume the proportion of a tsunami and be overwhelming. The time to act is now

EMAIL: [email protected]

The writer is a research and development consultant with Duos Dynamics Centre for Research and Practical Learning

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