On September 4, statistics compiled by John Hopkins University placed the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Africa at 1,275,863. Reported deaths in Africa have reached 30,617 and recoveries 1,013,909.
Predictably, the pandemic has caused social and economic disruption. Border closures and travel restrictions have been instituted by different countries to restrain the spread of the virus. South Africa, Rwanda, Tunisia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are some of the countries that announced complete lockdowns. These adversely affected transportation and other supply side businesses and service providers.
Potential foreign investors have been reluctant to invest in African businesses given the bearish outlook of global financial markets. Foreign equity and debt investments in African businesses have been adversely affected by COVID-19 as foreign governments and businesses respond to their own COVID-19 concerns. AfricArena reported in May, that African startups will receive 40% less than they did last year.
Countries have implemented travel restrictions, social distancing or quarantine policies. These are bound to affect businesses. Employers who can, have transitioned to telecommuting. With the exemption of a few essential service providers, large organizations swiftly directed their staff in various locations to work from home. They are using video conferencing platforms to conduct staff and client meetings. They are also adopting tech solutions that enable them to shift the bulk of their operations online.
Organizations are also taking advantage of Africa’s digital space by convening virtual management and shareholder meetings, in order to maintain the process of decision-making. The United Bank for Africa Plc held its first virtual Annual General Meeting in April. The new Companies Allied Matters Act in Nigeria, provides for virtual AGMs.
Finally, businesses have adopted strategies that allow more staff and customers to transition from routine cash payments to online transactions. They are reaping benefits too. Paga, a mobile money organization in Nigeria, introduced a contactless payment method where payment is performed by scanning a code from a mobile app. The number of new sign-ups to its e-wallet has risen by 330% over the previous quarter, mostly through its USSD platform which can be used on basic phones.
A McKinsey survey of consumers in major African economies found that over 30% of them were increasing their use of online and mobile banking tools.
Africa is experiencing fast growth in the digital space. There is a visible increase in tech-enabled businesses in Africa. Notably, mobile technology in Africa is its fastest growing market. Mobile broadband is accessible to two-thirds of the population. Mobile technology contributes to socio-economic development by affording digital and financial inclusion.
Importantly, mobile phones have afforded small businesses the means to participate in e-commerce. Nigeria’s e-commerce sector is Africa’s largest, valued at $13 billion. Small businesses have become smart – using social media apps to build strong customer relationships and earn more revenue.
Yet, most digital businesses are built upon physical infrastructure. Payment platforms depend on money agents, logistics depends on delivery vehicles. In e-commerce, while there is increased demand for essentials from housebound shoppers, businesses have to scale the hurdle of supplying through curfews and transport shutdowns.
Notably, the twin challenges of power supply and internet access are crippling the digital solutions necessary for the period. While the rate of global access to electricity is 87 percent, the rate in Africa is a sultry 43 percent. In addition, going online presents complications in Africa where only 24% of the population has access to the internet. Related problems include poor connectivity and exorbitant costs. Getting online is relatively expensive. Reports suggest that purchasing a handset and 500MB of data costs an average 10 percent of monthly income.
Inadequacies in Africa’s workplace have been laid bare by the pandemic. However, these should become an important launchpad for innovations in the marketplace and with infrastructure. In June, a report by McKinsey argued that African enterprises may need to rethink their business models. Specifically, companies in sectors that have witnessed widespread disruptions to their business model will need to adapt that business model, for instance, by digitizing certain business processes, in order to survive.
According to African Business Magazine, the pandemic is not just a crisis; it is a wake-up call for Africa. What is required is new, creative thinking about how to make the continent more resilient, inclusive and dynamic as it faces new realities and new risks.
This post ends on that note.