Dr John N. Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres of Disease Control and Prevention, and Wamkele Keabetswe Mene, Secretary-General of the AfCFTA, provide critical insight on the progress that their initiatives have made to strengthen African unity and economic progress.
- Dr Nkengasong, from the perspective of the Africa CDC, what does Africa’s future trajectory look like?
Since inception, we have been on a non-stop mission to fight disease. It speaks to the fact that we continue to see emerging diseases as the continent grows. At independence, we were 300 million people. Today, we are 1.3 billion people, projected to go to 2.4 billion by 2050. We are the rising continent for the future. As the population increases, people move, and diseases spread. We need to put these factors in our Agenda 2063 as developmental goals to respond to the spread of disease. The Africa CDC’s ability to develop guidelines for countries has improved and has coordinated efforts in our mission and our COVID-19 response.
- Africa has dealt well with the COVID-19 outbreak. What lessons can Africa teach to the world?
Dr Nkengasong: Africa has led a strong fight. First, the continent recognised early that a common effort was key. At the highest level, there has been the leadership of AU Commission, President Ramaphosa and Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat who meet every four weeks to talk multilaterally, coordinate efforts and share experiences. Secondly, the leadership at the country level took drastic measures and made painful, necessary decisions like locking down economies. Our demographic structure means that many people between the ages of 25-34 are asymptomatic. They move around and may not know they are infected. Without lockdown, 40 million Africans would be infected with 200,000 deaths, but that has not happened. Lastly, Africans everywhere responded to the need to adhere to social distancing and all safety measures in place. We increased testing and community engagement has been very strong in respect to contact tracing, too. Africa must come out of this crisis stronger than it was, not just as a slogan, but in action.
- Secretary-General Mene, what are the lessons that Africa has learnt from COVID-19? How can the AfCFTA remedy them?
First, COVID-19 exposed a need in industrial development and manufacturing capacity. At the onset of the pandemic, all PPEs and ventilators were imported. We have an opportunity to look at Africa’s industrial imperatives and see how we can accelerate our development to become more self-reliant in terms of manufacturing capacity. It also exposed the problems with an overreliance on the export of primary products. We must urgently diversify Africa’s economy, export base and markets within and outside of Africa so that we can boost intra-African trade to be more than 18% from where it stands today. Lastly, we must ensure that economic recovery in Africa is driven by trade and the AfCFTA.
- The AfCFTA will bring many people from poverty, but how will it help the poor populations and SMEs to be implemented into the financial system?
Mene: This agreement will not succeed if it only benefits African multinational companies. We must focus on inclusion as we implement the AfCFTA and how the benefits must be spread across segments of society such as women in trade, young Africans, SMEs and the informal sector. The AfCFTA enables SMEs to reach new markets using digital platforms. Programmes for women and young Africans in trade will ensure that they have inclusive benefits. We want to move as quickly as possible because we have millions of Africans who have very high expectations of the AfCFTA. We cannot disappoint them: we have to work hard to make sure that we meet the expectations that put us in this position to advance Africa’s economic development. I am pleasantly surprised at how Africans look at the AfCFTA as an opportunity. But that is an important question which we have to answer: we have to make sure that there is inclusivity that creates opportunities for young Africans. These are the questions that keep me up at night. This is an absolute priority: jobs for Africans.
- Do you have any final words of confidence about the future?
Dr Nkengasong: I believe there is a lot of hope behind our challenges. To every crisis, there is a silver lining. We have a unique opportunity to revamp our workforce using our young people. The momentum to harness is now.
Mene: The recovery from COVID-19 will come from the implementation of the AfCFTA. We will work very aggressively to make sure that we implement the agreement to the best of our abilities. It will take time, it will be difficult and challenging, but we owe it to millions of Africans who are expecting that, in these positions, we make a difference in their lives.