After perhaps the strangest Africa Day celebrations ever – largely held virtually and in the midst of a global pandemic that has infected more than 100,000 Africans and seen at least 3,300 deaths on the continent- it was good to see that some things never change.

Africa Day is still a time when our political leaders preach African Unity and tell us that our best days coming. This year African Union Chair and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of “a new Africa”. The question this time is whether this is more empty political rhetoric or will a better Africa finally emerge from these flames of Covid-19? And if so what will this “new Africa” actually look like?

President Ramaphosa believes the Covid-19 pandemic has started to create a unity that has so often proved elusive to the continent:

“Day by day, across our continent, we are seeing the unity that is our strength being put to the service of saving lives and supporting the vulnerable.”

In webinar after webinar, there is no doubt that many African business and political leaders share President Ramaphosa’s optimism. They sense this pandemic really is a turning point to bring about the change everyone on the continent is so hungry to see.

The Nigerian entrepreneur Tony Elumelu says “the pandemic presents an opportunity to reset Africa, create employment and eliminate poverty”:

“Africa must embrace the new normal. The disruptions we’ve seen across healthcare, logistics, supply chain, and the digital economy are here to stay. This presents a unique opportunity for a united Africa as a strong regional bloc acting in a coordinated fashion”.

He has called for a Marshall plan to galvanise the entire continent and mobilise people and resources to address Africa’s needs. That is also the conclusion of The African Union’s Special Envoy on Covid-19 Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala:

“We can see this pandemic as an opportunity for the continent. We have to specialise our countries to manufacture the things we need so we can trade with others. We need to produce good jobs for our young people and empower our women and youths and put them at the centre”

So, what needs to happen to make this a reality?

Several themes have emerged in the many African-related webinars which could potentially create this “new Africa”. There is much talk about how this Covid-19 crisis has smashed international supply chains and how the future is regional. There are many calls for investment to encourage African SMEs to create local supply chains in their communities to boost employment.

Everyone places great hopes in the African Continental Free Trade Area which will now be launched next year to create the largest free trade area in the world. The expectation that Africans will trade with their neighbours and build up industrialisation while reducing the traditional reliance on goods imported from outside the continent.

 Everyone accepts that SMEs provides most of the employment on the continent and seeks to boost their role through investment and training. These SMEs would be supported to deliver solutions for Africa across manufacturing, healthcare, energy, digital innovation, agriculture and other sectors.

 

There are more than 600 Tech Innovation hubs across Africa. Africa’s digital revolution will emerge from them, especially in the sectors of e-commerce, distance learning for schools and universities to train better-educated populations, and big opportunities in renewables and energy infrastructure to start plugging the continent’s electricity deficit.

Agribusiness is also thought to be ripe for investment. With the right support to move more and more of African’s millions of farmers from subsistence to commercial enterprises, there is no reason why Africa can’t become the world’s breadbasket.

The Covid-19 crisis has also brought about a realisation that Africa has great opportunities in health care. Africa currently imports most of its ventilators, masks and personal protective equipment for its doctors and nurses, it imports almost 100% of its medicines to the tune of $15 billion a year– why? There are massive opportunities here for African companies to produce all of these materials, create generic drugs and local supply chains.

I’ve seen many more visions for the future of Africa in webinar discussions during this long lockdown. When we finally emerge into that sunny day post-lockdown it won’t be back to “business as usual.”  Perhaps instead we’ll start to see some of these visions for a “New Africa” being implemented.

Peter Burdin
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