Focus on the bigger picture

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In our Business section this week, we spotlight one of the major issues Africa must confront if it hopes to not only recover economically in a post-COVID world, but also what it must do to create a sustainable strong economy in general.

As Assia Sidibe points out (“Start-ups key to Africa recovery”), the global COVID-19 pandemic has “created a unique opportunity to promote the growth of small and medium-size enterprises on the African continent”.

Yes, COVID-19 is taking lives. Yes, it is causing much economic distress as people’s productivity is hampered, meaning their capacity to make a living is stymied. Yes, it has given birth to untold anxiety, stress and angst.

But at the same time it presents opportunities.

On this very space in the previous edition of The Southern Times, we dwelt at some length on the opportunities that COVID-19 presents for Africa’s pharmaceutical sub-sector.

The continent’s pharma sector can generate around US$20 billion per annum. And because we import even the most basic medicines (are Africans really saying they don’t know how to make a basic painkiller?) and the most basic equipment (why are we buying latex gloves from Europe and China in the 21st century?), it means most of this US$20 billion is money that is leaving Africa and going to enrich other societies and other countries.

Not only that, the absence of a viable pharmaceutical sector grounded in African production means 16 million jobs are outsourced to Europe, North America and Asia. This at a time just about everyone on our continent is preaching the importance of employment creation and widening the tax base for purposes of sustainable development!

Indeed, the novel Coronavirus presents many opportunities that are of both a short-term and a long-term nature.

For instance, still on the pharmaceutical sub-sector of the healthcare industry, we report this week how a South African company called Aspen could soon be making huge profits from its stake in the drug called dexamethasone.

Researchers in the United Kingdom tell us that dexamethasone has reduced mortality in acute cases of Coronavirus by around 30 percent, and by about 20 percent in less critical cases.

That announcement by British researchers on Tuesday saw Aspen’s share price rise 6.09 percent on Wednesday morning.

That’s an example of a short-term gain, and it will not apply to most companies in Africa simply because we have not been actively involved in the pharmaceutical sector.

While policymakers, civil society activists and politicians cry about the horrors COVID-19 have visited on the motherland, young Africans are seeing the opportunities that have been presented.

They may not be at the forefront of producing the dexamethasones of this world (yet), but they are showing that with the right mind set, Africa can transform itself.

We can talk of “Solar Wash”, the solar-powered, touch-free water dispenser that has come out of Ghana. We can talk of “DiagnoseMe”, the remote screening platform that Burkina Faso has given the world. We can talk of how a textiles factory in Kenya has changed its production line in just one week so that it produces surgical masks.

All across Africa, young people are moving away from the sloganeering about job creation and are actually doing things that work while the politicians wait for magic bullet solutions from the World Bank and the IMF.

Every year, around 12 million Africans reach working age.

A private sector that is more concerned with fitting into a mould created by the West during colonial times, and governments more concerned with retaining power, are failing to absorb these 12 million young Africans.

The young Africans themselves see this and know this.

Why are we not creating the right environment for them to thrive? Do we not realise that by supporting them we are transforming our economies and building a real middle class that power the continent for generations to come?

The nascent innovations that are coming out from Africans in response to COVID-19 require the support of governments. Smart venture capitalists should put their money in these people and see the long-term picture, the big picture, of where they can be three, five, 10, 15 years from now.

Assia Sidibe says, “Properly resourced, these innovations could support manufacturing industries that would strengthen Africa’s defences against COVID-19 and create long-term sustainable businesses offering stable jobs.

“In addition to ensuring access to start-up capital, governments should create a transparent and reliable regulatory environment that facilitates entrepreneurship and encourages investors.

“Access to capital is probably the most significant challenge for African SMEs. While many global institutions already provide capital, local sources should play a more significant role in supporting SME growth.”

Instead of spending millions annually on importing luxury cars for government officials, governments should be spending millions on incubating the ideas that are coming out of Africa.

Instead of expending immense time and energy on scheming how best to win (or rig) elections, Africa’s leaders should be spending sleepless nights on creating enabling environments for innovators and entrepreneurs to thrive.

Our governments should go beyond taking begging bowls to the IMF and World Bank, and should start presenting a case for international multilateral financial institutions to fund commercially viable innovations by young Africans.

If we are not careful, we shall emerge from COVID-19 without having learnt any lessons apart from what the World Health Organisation has told us about social distancing and sanitising hands.

Yes, it is important invest in those things that in the short-term will result in an arrest in the spread of COVID-19.

But in all things, with or without COVID, we must never lose sight of the bigger picture. And Africa’s bigger picture is its young people.

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