Op-Ed: Businesses get innovative in pandemic-hit Africa

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AS the saying goes, adversity is the mother of invention and when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The entry of Covid-19 in Africa early this year brought unprecedented challenges that forced businesses to make a paradigm shift, writes Masila Thuvi.

The pandemic saw the extinction of some business ventures. While some businesses thrived,  completely new ones emerged.

Many youth stories at this time in Africa are more inspirational than during any other pandemic it has ever faced. By identifying needs of their communities and moving rapidly to fill these, youth-led initiatives, which have emerged as a direct intervention to stop the spread of the virus, have soared across all countries in Africa over the past seven months. Youth-led businesses have flourished as a result of opportunities created thereby.

With employment opportunities waning as a result of the economic downturn brought about by the pandemic, the search for alternative means of creating earnings is on the rise.

Business operations have changed. Others have had to re-imagine their modes of operations as they adapt to the new normal of physical distancing and changing consumer behaviour.

Mukula, a middle-aged man living in the suburbs of Nairobi, Kenya, was working as an accountant for a manufacturing firm – a job he had held for more than five years – before the pandemic struck. His job was affected after a lockdown was declared in the country, and companies started downsizing due to slowdown of the economy.

Faced with this challenge, he started a business of grocery distributorship. He created an online platform with his savings. He said that navigating the learning curve of the new business was the hardest part of the venture, but eventually, his clients gained confidence with his capability to supply.

‘It all boiled down to being creative and resilient to survive,’ he said, adding that he had to employ his skills of network marketing to attract customers and make his online platform user-friendly and payment modes versatile.

Mukula’s story resonates with many other young people across the continent who lost their jobs because of Covid-19 and had to find innovative and alternative means of making a living.

Studies have revealed that African youth have been greatly harnessing digital technologies in the fight against the pandemic through social activism and entrepreneurship to make a difference in their communities.

It is encouraging to find that currently, more than 80 percent of digital platforms created by young people like Mukula are homegrown, thus increasing their chances of sustainability.

It is envisioned that by the time the effects of the pandemic subside in Africa, many youth-led initiatives will have emerged.

Around the world, e-commerce businesses, such as Alibaba and Amazon, have cashed in on the tough measures put in place by governments to curb the spread of the virus. Apps that were previously unheard of, or rarely used, have become an integral part of business in the past few months.

Not more than five months ago, apps like Zoom, which were unfamiliar, are today used by many businesses across Africa to hold virtual meetings in addition to Google Meet, just to mention a few.

Tech-enabled businesses in Africa are showing more resilience and are expected to do better during and after the Covid-19 storm.

The brick-and-mortar businesses and general merchandise shops, which have come under pressure to survive, have adopted e-commerce business models to retain clients by riding on the already existing e-platforms, while others have had to create online platforms to reach customers and consumers who were on lockdown.

Youth-operated online apps are developing fast across Africa. In the East African region, particularly Kenya and Uganda, restaurants, supermarkets and shops have adopted the use of apps and online platforms, mainly operated by young people, to remain operational in addition to delivery applications such as Jumia, an online marketplace, and Safe-Boda, a ride-hiring app.

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online platforms driven by the need for innovative survival initiatives. These digital tools are envisaged to redefine interactions in the post-Covid world in addition to creating employment for the youth.

Masila Thuvi is a business and finance consultant based in Nairobi, Kenya

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