Ryan Cummings, director of Signal Risk, talks to Junita van der Colff, Host of RSK Review podcast, about key risks and opportunities on the African continent – especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Africa differs from the rest of the world when it comes to assessing risk. A technology boom is underway, with the growth of internet and mobile users outpacing other parts of the world, so the days of struggling to access data and information are behind us. African countries are using resources available in the ICT sector to address many of their challenges and improve their lived realities, and despite their political, cultural, religious and ethno-linguistic differences, they are seeking solutions that will ultimately benefit the continent as a whole.
With every risk comes opportunity. We know that the continent is not monolithic and African countries have many cleavages within them, making it difficult to implement national policies. It is currently easier for people living in Africa to travel to a European city than to travel to an African city, which reinforces the fact that we have difficulty communicating among ourselves, never mind opening up trade and exchanging skills and resources. But this is being addressed. The development of an African free trade agreement is slowly enhancing intra-Africa trade and seek new economic partners, ensuring greater Africa interdependence. We need solutions tailored to the uniqueness of our continent.
As an African optimist, I see evidence of a continent looking for Afrocentric solutions that will meet our developmental needs and ambitions. We are accustomed to donor funding, but the ‘begging bowl’ narrative is changing. As the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded, we have started to focus on the imbalance in terms of how other countries in the world have engaged with us. For example, the maltreatment of African citizens by Chinese security officials in the city of Guangzhou led to complaints from African ministers in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries moved away from the no-longer-beneficial French financial system in favour of the ECO, a single currency to be used in the region. We are not burning our bridges but aiming for self-sufficiency; we no longer want imported assistance.
Youthful populations – advantage or disadvantage?
We are a young continent, which means there is a large gap between the youthful populations of African countries and the average age of their leader – most leaders are older than they are on any other continent in the world. In recent years, these populations have challenged their own biggest affliction – autocratic governance. This has led to governments either making significant concessions or changing their totalitarian dispositions. The trend began with the Arab Spring, where youthful populations in Arab countries staged anti-government uprisings but also protested low standards of living. We have seen similar youth movements driven by technology in Algeria and parts of southern Africa. These populations are trying to effect changes to their environments that benefit them and not governments. Unfortunately, leaders view these young people as an existential threat when their demands become political – a potential risk.
If one looks at Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who is himself youthful, progressive, focused on technology, and keen to integrate his country within the global economic system, we get a sense of what it means to decentralise power from governance structures. However, he is very much the exception rather than the rule, in terms of African governance. Where governments prove an obstacle to their citizens’ development and economic upliftment, we will see an increase in civil unrest, political instability, and inter- and intra-state conflicts that have defined our continent for decades.
Youthful populations can present either a risk or an opportunity. As young people enter the labour market, they are an important commodity, able to spearhead technology to drive humanity forward. This enables African countries to elevate themselves and harness their potential. In this sense, the youth bulge will bear dividends rather than make up a deficit.
How Africa has responded to the coronavirus pandemic
Regarding the pandemic, some African countries are doing extremely well, while others are concerning. In many cases, African countries’ responses have been more robust, coordinated and science-driven than many developed nations. Senegal elevated itself in the global narrative by partnering with a British company to develop a test kit that provides results within ten to 20 minutes. Mauritius was one of the first countries to have completely contained the virus – there are no active transmissions there currently. They also have one of the highest per capital testing rates globally (18 000 per million). In South Africa, we are testing 10 000 per million – by contrast, the US is testing 20 000. Nigeria dealt rapidly with Ebola during the West Africa outbreak of 2014-2016, but their response to the pandemic has left a lot to be desired. They are testing only 130 people per million.
It is possible that many African countries are experiencing low infection rates because we are more prepared to manage this outbreak, given our experience with highly infectious communicable diseases. But one can also argue that European countries were caught by surprise, and African countries have had the opportunity to put best practices in place and mobilise healthcare resources. On the other hand, we may not be in the exponential growth phase yet, and we do not have the competency or resources to deal with this specific virus. South Sudan has contained Ebola effectively but is unprepared for COVID-19 – there are currently more vice-presidents in the country (five) than there are working ventilators (four).
The continent’s collective response has challenged stereotypes in the face of this massive risk event. Africa is not a helpless victim and has led the way in many instances, providing best practice to the rest of the world. The suggestion that we would need one million body bags in South Africa was roundly criticised – to date, our public and private health care facilities have not been strained beyond capacity, and our lockdown prevented many unnecessary deaths.
Once we have put this pandemic behind us, I believe that we will look to the African Union’s goals of developing a more integrated, interdependent continent. We will open trade and the movement of people across national borders, realising the benefits of regional cooperation. Going forward, I would like to see the adaptation of technology, greater collaboration, and more solution-driven innovation. We have so much potential, and we should leverage what we have going for us here in Africa.
- Ryan Cummings is the director of Signal Risk, a risk management consultancy offering holistic risk management solutions for entities across the African continent. Founded in 2015, Signal Risk provides insight into social, economic, and political trajectories on the continent and how these manifest in policy positioning.