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Open for business in africa?

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

Covid-19 now reality for african businesses

When it comes to Coronavirus, it certainly isn’t a case of ‘better late than never’. Having reported its first case in mid-February, Africa’s caseload now stands at 44,398 across 52 countries (Lesotho has yet to report a case). With only 500,000 tests conducted on a population of 1.2 billion, the real figure is expected to be much higher and the WHO predicts Africa will become the epicentre of the pandemic in the coming months.

Almost all African countries have implemented measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 with differing levels of severity and acceptance. Businesses operating on the continent must assess the local circumstances in order to successfully navigate the unprecedented times ahead.

understanding Measures in place

Like the rest of the world, African responses have varied according to leadership, perceived risks and the idiosyncrasies of each country. Like the rest of the world, the responses have exposed vast social inequalities and tensions.

The most common measures include the closing of borders, schools and public places, as well as limiting gatherings and restricting inter-regional travel. Some countries, such as Senegal, Guinea and Ivory Coast, have introduced dusk-to-dawn curfews. Others like Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Gabon have enforced quarantine on major cities (Lagos, Ouagadougou and Libreville respectively). Only a handful of countries, including Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, have put their people under full lockdown.

New measures are announced with varying degrees of warning through government channels, but most citizen awareness stems from their social network; neighbours, family and friends passing on verified information as well as rumours. For businesses with on-the-ground operations, it’s vital to keep abreast of new measures and understand their impact. Then work to create a ‘new normal’ approach to operations which safeguards both your employees, your assets and partners.

Self-isolation is a luxury

Confinement in Africa is the preserve of expats, the wealthy and the middle class. Those with internet access, TVs, fans and fridges can self-isolate in relative comfort in comparison to tightly-packed households in poor neighbourhoods without regular water or electricity supply. For example, self-isolation in Nairobi’s Runda district, where the average house price is £1.1 million, is not comparable to Kibera, where 300,000 people live per square kilometre in Africa’s largest urban slum.

The poorest workers also do not have excess income to stock food nor the ability to survive without leaving one’s home. In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 66% of employment is informal. Most people who live day-to-day, cash-in-hand, hand-to-mouth therefore face a stark choice: hunger or an invisible illness. Both the street hawkers and the authorities know which one they’ll choose.

To alleviate these concerns, businesses with local workers should encourage middle-managers to work from home, freeing up the streets for those that can’t. In addition, companies should consider how they can support lower-level staff, such as office cleaners or construction workers, in order to stop them seeking alternative high-risk employment.

Travel restrictions

Limiting movement disproportionately impacts bottom-of-the-ladder workers that travel from the outskirts to urban centres to work, such as maids and security guards. For example, in Dakar, Senegal, social distancing precludes that buses which usually carry 60 passengers are now limited to 20, thereby increasing journey times for workers that rely on public transport. Waking earlier and returning later is not an option in countries with curfews.

Businesses should therefore consider paying for employees to take taxis to work (less risk than public transport), allow for flexi- or shift working, or allowing extra time for staff to return home.

Heavy-handed responses

Society’s lowest strata has not only borne the brunt of the most stringent measures, but also their enforcement. Both liberal-leaning and authoritarian states in all corners of Africa have dished out ‘heavy-handed’ responses, such as beatings and public humiliation, for falling foul of the rules. In Kenya, six people were killed by police violently enforcing the coronavirus curfew. In parts of Nigeria, security forces have killed more people imposing the coronavirus lockdown than the virus itself. In Uganda, President Moseveni called on the police to “stop beating people…[as it] gives a bad image of our security personnel.”

Meanwhile, the rich have used their influence to purposefully flout the rules. In Uganda, the Agago District Police Commander (DPC) Samson Lubega was arrested for authorising and then attending a businessman’s party. In Dakar, a wealthy businessman’s daughter held a late-night party with guests using curfew exemption passes, which are supposedly reserved for crucial business.

Businesses should be wary how their employees and supply chain partners may be treated by security forces and make sure safety precautions are taken and guidelines are followed.

Trust in institutions

The level of trust between states and their populations has influenced the imposition and response to lockdown measures in Africa. Citizens are more likely to adhere to the rules when they believe they are in their best interest. States are more likely to impose more lenient rules if they think they will be followed.

In Ethiopia, the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the nobel peace prize in 2018. Since reporting its first coronavirus case on 13 March, he has announced gradual measures - suspension of public gatherings, release of low-risk prisoners, a five-month state of emergency - with no nationwide lockdown. There are currently 123 reported cases among Ethiopia's 110 million strong population.

In neighbouring Djibouti, President Ismail Oumar Guelleh has ruled dictatorially since 1999. He announced full lockdown measures - no outside exercise, staying in homes - without any warning. There are now 1037 reported cases among Djibouti’s 950,000 population (the highest per capita in Africa) with Guelleh blaming the numbers on people not respecting confinement rules.

In addition, the level of state trust is exacerbated in fragmented societies where fake news and widespread suspicions abound. Nigerian politicians are widely considered corrupt and self-serving, especially by those in the poorer, Muslim north. This distrust hindered the response to previous public health emergencies, such as polio and HIV in the early 2000s, with many northerners believing vaccines were ways to contaminate the Muslim population.

Businesses operating in low trust societies should ensure employees understand the need for lockdown measures, while making it easier for employees to adhere to them. Businesses should also take care to manage existing relationships with government partners or agencies sensitively. At a time of crisis many government institutions may be under significant pressure. Businesses should therefore review existing touch points with government, and manage potential pain points whilst maintaining compliance with international legal norms.

Assessing the local situation

Critically businesses should ensure they fully understand the situation on the ground and how it impacts employees, suppliers and contractors before implementing COVID measures. Appreciating individual circumstances and concerns will enable better judgement calls, ensure employee wellbeing and protect operations in the long-term.

This is where getting support from expert risk managers, with local expertise can be helpful. If your organisation has no history of crisis management, or lacks experienced eyes on the ground, getting support could ensure you have the advice needed to make difficult decisions. Its important to remember that organisations will be judged on how they treated workers and partners during this crisis, and insensitive handling could cause long term reputational damage. Now is not the time to make assumptions about local realities. Local intelligence and an understanding of how COVID is affecting your entire supply chain could mean the difference between emerging from the crisis, or becoming one of its many casualties.

Kirsten Jack is the CEO of Tapis Intelligence, a global intelligence network on-hand to provide strategic advice and insight on over 130 countries around the world.


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