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“Building forward better”: The role of technology in Africa’s COVID-19 recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the African continent into recession for the first time in 25 years. So far, Africa has had fewer reported deaths due to the pandemic than most other regions—perhaps attributable to young demographics and decisive government leadership shaped by lessons learnt from previous health crises. Furthermore, it has sparked entrepreneurship and new partnerships between governments and the private sector. As part of the 23rd annual Milken Institute Global Conference, convened under the theme of “Meeting the Moment,” Amujae Leader and Former Minister of Economy and Finance of the Republic of Guinea, Malado Kaba, joined a panel discussion to talk about the path to recovery.

The panel discussion, which was on the subject of Africa: Economic Recovery and Transformation, was moderated by President and Editor-in-Chief of Devex Raj Kumar and also included Paula Ingabire, Minister of ICT and Innovation, Republic of Rwanda; Vivian Nwakah, Founder and CEO, Medsaf; and Arunma Oteh, Academic Scholar, Oxford University, former Vice President and Treasurer, World Bank.

The conversation opened with agreement on the need to “build forward better,” based on the popular notion arising from the pandemic that governments should “build back better,” and look for opportunities for the continent to come out of the pandemic in better shape than before. Ms. Kaba commented that she had feared from the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic that its financial and economic impacts would be worse than its impact on the continent’s health. Additionally, she identified that African economies aren’t sufficiently diversified and don’t process enough of what is grown and extracted from African soil:

“The pandemic has again shed a light on our pervasive fragilities and vulnerabilities of our economies. Intra-African trade only stands at 15 percent of total African trade, compared to the EU where we are at 60 to 62 percent.”

There was further discussion about the role of technology in shaping Africa’s future as economies move past the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of data to shape fact-based policy making, and the potential for this to be the moment that the public (and public sector) come together to push governments in a new direction. Ms. Kaba commented that the private sector should not have a monopoly on efficiency and that there needs to be an acceleration of the digital transformation agenda:

“How can we leverage new technologies to push governments and to push the public sector to operate a sweeping transformation?”

During the session, the panelists also discussed entrepreneurship and the need for investment as well as the increased perceived risks of investing in African projects, much of which can be attributed to the need for more supporting infrastructure to enable business success. Each of the panelists shared their thoughts on where the biggest opportunities for investment in Africa lie and agreed that the interconnectedness of each sector meant that none could be taken in isolation—there must be investment everywhere, in every sector. Ms. Kaba noted:

“We need to ensure we fund the most productive projects that will allow us to generate wealth, create jobs, and allow us to get the resources we need to make progress in the future.”

You can watch the full panel discussion here.

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