Ghana and Nigeria brace for the economic nightmare ahead, even as the region’s billionaires, entrepreneurs and innovators chip in for the fight against Covid-19.
The Labadi Beach Hotel, set amidst landscaped tropical gardens in the heart of Accra, is unusually quiet on the Tuesday morning FORBES AFRICA visits in mid-March. The usual bustle of the morning breakfast buffet frequented by the city’s elite has all but disappeared, and in its place, an air of uncertainty about the future of one of Accra’s longest-running hotels, at least in the interim.
You cannnot enter without going through the new mandatory protocols in place: hand-sanitizers, individual temperature screenings and metal detectors.
“Unfortunately, we are no longer accepting outside guests and the hotel will be closing until further notice,” says the bartender. The usually-packed lobby has only two in-house guests already scheduled to leave the hotel.
Ghana’s thriving hospitality industry was one of the first victims of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, once President Nana Akufo-Addo banned mass gatherings and ordered the closure of airports. Hotels in the Greater Accra region closed down, sending thousands of workers home, and leaving management to contend with the challenge of paying salaries and taxes sans customers.
It’s in stark contrast to 2019, when Ghana’s international PR campaign, The Year of Return 2019, brought in an additional 237,000 visitors representing an estimated $1.9 billion into the economy, according to Barbara Oteng Gyasi, Ghana’s Minister of Tourism. Most of the money was spent on the hospitality sector with the average spend per tourist estimated to be around $2,590.
And now, with the slow demise of the hospitality sector, a host of ancillary services are also feeling the pinch. Rashad McCrorey is the founder of Africa Cross Culture, a travel company that helps African-Americans reconnect to their roots by visiting countries on the African continent. He was one of those seduced by Ghana’s call to reconnect with the continent on the 400th anniversary of slaves landing in the United States, and so he arrived in Ghana with the goal of promoting his tourism business.
Ghana imposed a lockdown on movement in its two largest cities, Accra and Kumasi, from March 30, and effected a travel ban on people traveling from countries overseas with cases of Covid-19. In addition, the United States (US) State Department advised its citizens to return home immediately or face staying abroad for an indefinite period. “I was shocked. My initial thoughts were fear and panic. I was seeing all the development in the US, and New York has the highest amount of cases. The National Guard and US army had been deployed in the streets and my home was basically ground zero for the deadly virus,” says McCrorey.
After weighing his options, he made the decision to stay on in Ghana instead of returning home.
“At the time, ticket prices surged from $500 to about $6,000 and I was scared of exposing myself more to the virus. Also, going back meant that I risked spending the pre-paid money of my customers and that was also not ideal,” says McCrorey.
Gregory Lamptey, the founder of Black Cab, a logistics company providing transportation services to customers and businesses in Accra, is facing a similar conundrum. “Business has all but stopped since the lockdown in Ghana last week. I do not think we will be able to make it to the end of the year and I have had to start looking at other alternatives to make ends meet,” he rues.
In Ghana, there were 4,700 confirmed cases with 22 deaths as of May 12. Ghana has undertaken 160,501 tests since the outbreak as of this date, a figure the president lauded as the highest per million people than any other country in Africa.
But as elsewhere on the continent, it’s the workers in the informal sector that are most at risk.
“They face a very difficult choice: keep going to work and risk contracting or spreading the virus, or stay at home and risk their family starving,” observes Nana Kwame Bediako, the founder of Kwarleyz Group, an umbrella company which encompasses Wonda World Estates and Petronia City Development that has designed and developed over 500 residential and retail units in Ghana. The company is currently negotiating to pledge one of its premier properties, Number 1 Oxford Street, five-star luxury serviced apartments, as a quarantine location, isolation center, temporary hospital or safe place for nurses, doctors and other medical personnel should the need arise.
“This is the most challenging economic downturn globally,” says Franklin Cudjoe, President of Imani-Africa, a leading think-tank in Ghana. “This is going to affect businesses all over the world in a much more significant way than ever before.”
This was perhaps the rationale behind Ghana easing its lockdown restrictions in less than a month to allow people to return to work. There is, however, still a ban on public gatherings and a national requirement for face masks to be worn by everyone.
But Kwame Ofori, a financial analyst with the Ghana Stock Exchange, is currently on the fence on how the Ghanaian economy will recover.
“Everything depends on how long this period lasts, but if it goes on for a long time, it’s going to be a big financial and economic crisis for Ghana. Most businesses in Ghana cannot realistically afford a lockdown,” avers Ofori.
It is within this context that Ken Ofori-Atta, Ghana’s Minister of Finance, said in a Financial Times interview that Africa has reached a “break the glass moment”.
Through a partnership between the ministers of finance and economic planning on March 30, a series of strategies were outlined, which includes fiscal measures to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic including the Coronavirus Alleviation Programme. Consequently, the government estimates of the immediate impact of Covid-19 is a decline in GDP growth from a projected 6.8% to 2.6%.
Along the pristine coastline of the Labadi Beach, sits a five-storey apartment complex boasting beautiful ocean views, underground parking for tenants, a gymnasium, two restaurants and a supermarket. The developer, Kofi Appiah, is a British-Ghanaian architect who relocated to Ghana two years ago.
“I started building and selling a couple of years ago in Ghana and things were great. Right now, we cannot even get anyone to come and look at our developments. I have had to lay off the entire sales team and we are now depending on social media to attract buyers,” says Appiah.
“Buyers need to imagine themselves living in the apartments and this is very difficult to imagine with just videos and pictures on Instagram. I don’t imagine we are going to be selling any of these units at least for the next six months.”
About 40 minutes from Ghana, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is also battening down the hatches. With plunging oil prices caused by the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and the novel coronavirus outbreak, Nigeria is in a much more precarious economic position.
Nigerian stocks have gone through weeks of losses with the fall in oil prices from $57 to $30 per barrel subsequently leading to an increase in external debt and a depreciating currency. This year, Nigeria’s budget stood at $37 billion based on oil prices staying at $57 per barrel. With the sharp decline in these prices, Nigeria cannot currently fund its budget.
“Nigeria might very well be in trouble here. Even though Parliament recently granted President Muhammadu Buhari’s request for $22.7 billion in foreign borrowing, the significant fall in global oil prices will erode any boost from this stimulus. Many analysts are of the opinion that the Nigerian naira has deteriorated markedly and remains set for a sharp fall this year if current conditions persist,” says Ofori.
One of the major side-effects of this in the country is a US dollar shortage that is creeping up with the informal dollar dealers on the black market. Nigeria’s official exchange rate which is fixed by the central bank, has stayed at around N360 to the dollar since the country emerged out of recession in 2017. Today, the rate is N445.
“Everyone is currently hunting for dollars and we don’t have any more. Even the agents we get them from are not releasing the dollars because they believe the rates will go even higher so this is becoming a big problem,” says Audu, a black-market agent.
The coronavirus is simply adding insult to injury for Nigeria’s economic woes. As of May 12, there are over 5,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Nigeria. The country issued a nationwide lockdown between March and April but similar to Ghana, has eased restrictions on movement to enable its 200 million population to return to work while practising social distancing.
Billionaire Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, announced a donation of essential medical supplies to help fight the pandemic. Along with making global headlines, his actions have also galvanized other private businesses and Nigeria’s most successful entrepreneurs to utilize their assets and funds for social good amid the devastating outbreak.
Tony Elumelu, Chairman of Heirs Holding and United Bank for Africa (UBA), announced N5 billion ($12.8 million), through the UBA foundation, to kick-start a comprehensive pan-African response to the fight against the coronavirus. The donation is aimed at providing significant support to Nigeria and other African countries through the provision of critical care facilities and materials.
“I believe we all have a part to play in this global crisis and I hope that this is the time the private sector and government work together to help the most vulnerable people to battle the virus. We need to act fast and we commend the work the government is already doing to ensure we stem the spread of this global pandemic,” says Elumelu.
For African countries, this virus is expected to overwhelm an already insufficient healthcare system and reverse the economic growth that many countries have been experiencing in recent years. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) has revised Africa’s growth, falling from 3.2% to 2%.
“We need to deal with the human crisis first before we can begin to address the economic impact of the virus on us. I am confident we will pull through this crisis just like we have in several other adverse situations that have come before,” says Oscar Onyema, CEO of the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
Nigeria’s richest woman, Folorunso Alakija, is also stepping in to help fight the pandemic. Through her Famfa Oil, one of the leading indigenous exploration and oil production companies in Nigeria, she has pledged N1 billion ($2.56 million) to support Nigeria’s fight against Covid-19.
“These are truly difficult times for us. As the world rallies to deal with the health security, economic and social implications of the coronavirus, it is clear we feel the effects more deeply than most of the developed world. Managing a crisis of this magnitude means that the strength of our response will determine our ability to weather the storm but I believe with God, nothing is impossible,” says Alakija.
“Millions of Nigerians are under 30 and live from hand-to-mouth and quite frankly, cannot afford a lockdown. They depend on going out each day to earn a living on the streets as well as buying food from crowded markets. If this lockdown continues, there could be a mass unrest which could further cripple Nigeria,” says Idrisu Bello, a Nigerian economist.
President Buhari in an address in March ordered financial intervention schemes to be rolled out for the most vulnerable.
“This represents about 10,695,360 individuals in 35 states across the country as the poorest and most vulnerable Nigerians,” says Bello.
The Aliko Dangote Foundation (ADF) has also pledged N200 million ($516,000) to support the current effort of the Nigerian government to fight the disease.
Zouera Youssoufou, Managing Director and CEO of ADF, says the donation is part of the foundation’s cardinal objective of partnering with governments to combat the disease.
“The Dangote Foundation has been at the forefront of helping Nigerians fight against diseases and providing economic development for Nigeria. At this very difficult time, we are committed to providing the much-needed support to help the government provide help to millions of vulnerable Nigerians,” says Youssoufou.
As corona cases continue to rise, Nigeria, along with other African countries, has also shut its airports and air travel.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that around 330,000 jobs and $1.2 billion are at stake in Ethiopia’s economy, around 190,000 jobs and $3.8 billion in South Africa’s economy, around 138,000 jobs and $1.1 billion to Kenya’s economy and 91,000 jobs in Nigeria with $650 million lost.
Then there is the worrying problem of medical care.
Lagos-based air ambulance and offshore medical solutions contractor Flying Doctors Nigeria, founded and run by entrepreneur Ola Brown, is calling this a true pandemic.
“Africa has to be cautious because of the challenges we have in our healthcare. There are significant deficits and a huge lack of medical and financial resources which means we face an unprecedented time ahead,” says Brown.
However, in spite of the insurmountable challenges, a number of local entrepreneurs are providing innovative solutions to help the government in its fight against the disease.
Accra-based company DTRT Apparel is gearing up to manufacture a range of personal protective equipment (PPEs) to supply Africa and the rest of the world. DTRT supplies products to major US and EU-based brands via a global network spanning three continents. The company employs over 2,000 people in West Africa, procures textiles from Asia and exports primarily to the EU and US markets.
“Now is the time for companies all over Africa to work together for the greater good of the continent. We want to do our part to ensure we are contributing to the fight against this pandemic by providing resources to the healthcare system,” says Salma Salifu, Managing Director of DTRT.
In Nigeria, Bamigbose Adams, a furniture-maker, has begun turning old metal drums into custom hand-washing basins to be sold in Lagos.
Around 157 million Nigerians lack access to proper hand-washing facilities, according to a 2018 report by WaterAid Nigeria and Adams saw this as an opportunity to innovate to survive.
“Business has been slow for a while so I was looking at different ways of making money to feed my family. I got the idea to use the drum from my local area where some people use them to store water. I created the first drum and it worked and then the publicity began to create a demand,” says Adams.
His main clients are local businesses that want a temporary solution to help combat the spread of the virus.
As governments rally to find solutions to help their economies, it is very clear that the way we live and do business will not be the same. Ever again.