How to convert COVID-19 to opportunity in Africa

BY ANDUALEM SISAY GESSESSE – They say every challenge brings opportunities. For the past few months we have been listening how COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic can be catastrophic to not only in the health of the people of this planet but also in social and economy of the world. Some fear that it will lead the global economy far from recession to even depression if not contained sooner.

Many of the developing countries in Africa including Ethiopia have already began feeling the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. About a week ago, Ethiopian Airlines has announced that it has lost $190 million because of travel bans by many governments and people across the world are avoiding travel not to contain the virus.

Though we haven’t heard exact figures from other African airlines, report shows that the airlines industry across the world is badly affected by the disease forcing some to seek bailouts by their governments. As a result the tourism industry of Africa, which involves the hotel, hospitality, tour and travel operates employing millions of people and generate tens of billions of dollars is severely hit by COVID-19.

Africa which spends, tens of billions of dollars for importing food every month is also likely to suffer from food shortage if the situation continues. For instance the government of Ethiopia is reportedly spending about one billion dollars every year just to import wheat. This is in addition to the money being spent on edible oil and other food staff.

Now that the food import is very unlikely to continue as usual because of the global supply chain disruption. What should countries in Africa, which have not been utilizing their agricultural potential properly do about this crisis?

For my country Ethiopia begging and getting food aid from abroad will also not be easy as usual even if the logistics is possible because at this stage every country in the world is focusing on how to contain the pandemic and save its people and rescue its economy from collapse.

So how do these rich in natural source but poor in resource governance can deal with the negative impacts of COVID-19? The answer is simple where the whole world is trying to save its own people and its own economy, Africa must also focus on how it can mobilize its domestic resources and properly utilize its both natural resources and young human capital.

No matter how many unique historical, anthropological and cultural destinations are found in Africa, these countries can’t drive people to come and visit these tourist attractions as usual at the time of at this global crisis. The option is rather to think out of the box and divert some of these labor force to some of the labor intensive and yet critical sectors of the economy such as, agriculture and entrepreneurship and digitalization and e-businesses.

With about two thirds of its total population under 40 and having natural resources from abundant farming land which can feed the whole world to oil, gas and diamond, it is indeed time for Africa to look deep inside. COVID-19 is an opportunity to leapfrog African economies and probably set free itself from foreign aid dependency once and for all.

Let me be a little bit practical here. About few years ago, I went to a rural area to visit a farm. The farm is owned by a medical doctor, who lives in Nairobi and calls called himself ‘telephone farmer’. What he is doing is invest in small agriculture business creating jobs for many people in the rural area and he makes profit. I also met a Kenyan journalist, who used to work for BBC and is also do telephone chicken farming.

The investment do not necessary be huge. In my country Ethiopia in addition to my journalistic career, I also have been investing around $5,000 to $10,000 in vegetables farm twice a year for the past several years. This has enabled me to create jobs for an average of dozen young people who also share the profit equally with me producing tomatoes and onions twice a year. This is just simple example of domestic resource mobilization and simple steps towards self-sufficiency in basic products, local production bosting, jobs and wealth creation within Africa.

No matter how developed your country is if you don’t be able to produce the basics within your own country or territory, one is likely to suffer like we are seeing in the United Sates, whose companies have moved their manufacturing out of the country long ago to cheaper labor countries like China. Today President Trump is struggling to convince these companies CEO\s to reactivate their manufacturing plants within the United Sates and start producing medical supplies to stop the spread of COVID-19. So self0suffcieny at household or country level is mandatory especially at the time of such international trade supply chain disruption and pandemic.

For some people it may look backward thinking to look at investing in agriculture in this age of digital economy. But make no mistake, people in the age of digital economy still need to eat food. So, investment in agriculture is one of the most sustainable and profitable sector for many years to come, especially for African countries.

I am not saying that Africa do not need digital economy and has to lag behind the rest of the world. That is why I mentioned entrepreneurship, e-business and digitalization as among the areas Africa needs to divert its current workforce in tourism sector into these areas of digital economy.
What I am saying here is that Ethiopia, which has huge underutilized farmland and irrigation potential, can use this opportunity to mobilize domestic resources and at least saves the one billion dollars it is spending on import of wheat every year and probably export other foods crops, stabilize local market and vegetables to neighboring countries.

In addition, with a well-crafted import substitute strategy and policy and financing, African governments can also help their young generation to stat production of small scale consumer goods such as soaps, organic beauty products, develop their traditional medicines like that of Morocco and processed foods and cut their import bills.

But this can be realized when people begin to look what is available around them and what they can do about it. And I believe, pandemic like COVID-19, should be taken as by African governments and the people of Africa to takeoff their eyes from the rest of the world and mobilize their domestic resources for the betterment of their people and their economies.

For Ethiopia this is the time to think of perhaps launching agriculture focused banks, e–commerce and digital economy focused bank, etc… and craft policies that help communities to mobilize resources not to consume but for investment.

I think it is high time for paradigm and mindset shift for Africa during this age of compromised globalization and humanity. We all know that the so called fake foreign direct investments (FDI) haven’t been able to create the kind of quality jobs and economic growth for the past few decades as we have witnessed so far. It only benefited the so called international brokers, who call themselves business consultants and their corrupt officials, lawyers etc…

Now is the time for Ethiopia and my fellow Africans to lift our millions of people out of poverty and set our fragile economy free from the so called international community dependency. After all political independence without economic independence is still slavery. If Africa lockdown for one month to save its people from COVID-19 pandemic and yet the people can’t say at home because they don’t have food at home.

Why do people stay at home and starve to death? Don’t you think that the very poor will invade the house of better or wealthy next door to robe as we have seen in the Hollywood movie ‘Contagion‘, which several years ago predicted COVID-19 kind of pandemic?

My message – Wakeup African leaders and African people! Use COVID-19 as an opportunity to mobilize your domestic resources for the kind of self-sustaining investments I mentioned above. For now I hope that Africa is not suitable for coronavirus to stay long at least because of our weather and climate. We better take action immediately and aggressively mobilize domestic resources before the next coronavirus, which might be comfortable to stay long in the tropical climate, reveal itself.