Africa, along with the rest of the world, overcame a series of crises in the past three years, including the COVID-19 pandemic and global supply chain-induced economic shocks, resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These crises exacerbated other negative trends, leading several countries to backslide on their commitments to democracy. But they have also transformed the African continent in important ways, from public health to energy to information and communications technology (ICT), that will make “post-pandemic” Africa a very different place than the pre-pandemic one. They also play into ongoing efforts to implement the African Continental Free Trade Area, which will be the largest free trade area since the formation of the WTO. This Africa is much more nuanced, jettisoning prior tropes of “Afro-optimism” and “Afro-pessimism,” and justifying a new appreciation of the continent’s growing importance.
Arguably, the easiest lens to employ for understanding the transformation that is taking place is through the COVID-19 pandemic. As the coronavirus infections spread around the world in 2020, individual African countries found themselves unable to compete with developed countries that had the decades of contacts with companies and large checkbooks necessary to procure essential personal protective equipment for their medical staff and vulnerable populations. As vaccines emerged in late 2020 and 2021, much of the same scenario repeated itself. African leaders channeled their frustration into transformative initiatives that set up the most effective regional health governance structure, leveraging the buying power of the continent’s 1.3 billion people through a remarkable online platform, the African Medicines Supply Platform, which made selling medicine and equipment easy and guaranteed payment. Africa built on this with the Africa Vaccine Acquisitions Task Team, which in turn convinced heads of state to set the goal for Africa to produce 60% of the vaccines and medicines it consumes by 2040 (up from 1% in 2019). In a matter of months, these initiatives shifted shortages of critical supplies into surpluses, while African governments used their new platform to entice companies on the continent to add new production lines to replace supply shortages.
This example is an important illustration of the power of governments banding together to change their narrative and doing so in close cooperation with the private sector. They fully understand that achieving this goal will require putting in place the right kind of regulatory and policy environment. As a result, they have accelerated the process of ratifying and setting up the African Medicines Agency, which will provide continent-wide guidance and policy direction, and have strengthened the African Center for Disease Control (which did a remarkable job of coordinating regional and continental health policies during the pandemic). The African Union and member governments have also released a framework for the Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM), which lays out the various steps needed to realize this goal, including expanding both critical research into neglected diseases capable of jumping from animals to humans and clinical trials on the continent.
Africa was already on track pre-pandemic to become the second biggest health market in the world behind only the US. When African companies and governments couldn’t get the critical supplies they needed in 2020 as global supply chains were disrupted, they innovated, resulting in the greatest number of advances using ICT technology of any continent, according to the World Bank. The need to innovate electronic health services has unleashed a wave of programs to re-imagine how health systems work, making them more patient-centric and employing big data to better understand where patients are and what they need on a holistic basis (rather than disease by disease), creating significant new opportunities for forecasting and planning to unlock efficiencies in time and money.
Africa’s handling of the health aspects of the pandemic are critical, in part because within 20 years, Africa will be the single biggest pool of workers and consumers on the planet as the global north (including China) ages. The fact that Africa has taken such important steps to control its own narrative is an important bellwether of how Africa will shape the development of the future of markets, including energy, ICT, and agriculture.
Africa is already reshaping what the future of energy markets will look like, posing an interlocking set of challenges and opportunities. Most countries in Africa are focused on the urgent need to expand access to reliable electricity. Despite significant progress over the last decade, roughly half of Africa’s population (600 million) currently lacks access to grid power. The global pandemic underscored just how critical access to electricity is, including for e-health and supply chain-related items like cold storage. The lack of sufficient transmission and installed generation capacity, as well as refineries, has left Africa more dependent than other continents on imported fuel—and the sharp increases of fuel prices induced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made that dependence even more costly. The good news is that Africa has significant potential energy sources across the sector, including significant new natural gas discoveries, large solar and wind potential (which several countries have started to develop), and emerging opportunities for next-generation nuclear energy. Africa also is home to many of the larger deposits of critical minerals that will power the green economy, offering significant opportunities to meet the global need for a greater supply of these materials while also diversifying their processing, moving away from heavy reliance on China. African leaders have made it clear that they must improve their own energy security by developing these resources.
Rather than treating this as a challenge to climate change, the world has the opportunity to work with African countries to develop these resources in a way that meets both Africa’s need for electricity and accelerates the transition to a net zero world by 2050. It is simply not feasible to tell Africa that they must forgo new gas power generation in the medium term while shipping more quantities of critical mineral ores to the developed world. Working with Africa offers the near-term prospect of increasing global energy resources at a time when Europe and Asia need alternative sources to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas. In this regard, Africa offers a great opportunity to chart what a just transition from fossil fuel economies to clean energy looks like, while creating significant opportunities for companies across the globe.
Africa is having a similar impact on the shape of the future of ICT. The continent has faced a digital divide in which hundreds of millions of Africans lack access to the internet—while simultaneously being the continent that has shown the greatest innovation in the use of ICT during the pandemic, according to the World Bank. The pandemic induced millions of Africans to use e-commerce for the first time, and digital health and e-government are driving demand to expand networks and cell phones, just as several consortia are delivering new subsea cables to expand Africa’s access to the global web. Africa has already pioneered some of the most innovative developments in the mobile space (e.g., Kenya’s Mpesa mobile money system), and new developments are rapidly emerging in health, energy, and agriculture. As the world’s most rapidly urbanizing continent ever, the range of issues related to city planning are already working to use these new tools.
While there will continue to be challenges in each of these sectors, Africa merits greater attention, as it will increasingly meld the economic potential of its growing population with its own vision of how to best address its needs, which will have an increasingly important influence on how the rest of the world develops.