POST COVID-19: AN OPPORTUNITY FOR AFRICAN BUSINESSES

As we move forward into 2021, when most of the world is still struggling with new strains of the  Covid-19 virus and renewed lockdowns, it might seem paradoxical to speak about opportunities and environments for businesses to thrive and yet this is a trend that is clearly appearing at the horizon.

For all the failed policies and faulty decision-making, the pandemic has also created some unexpected opportunities, of which some could have a positive impact for Africa.

Accelerated digital transformation is one of them, and this is certainly where the biggest opportunity lies for African businesses.

The lack of physical infrastructures in logistics, finance, and IT, comparative to the level of those found in the most advanced economies in the West, US and China has long been one of the key hurdles to a faster and more sustainable growth of business activity across Africa.

In parallel, the lack of homogeneous and accepted business and trading standards has also been a major impediment to the development of intra-African trade and investment, whilst a lack of a trustworthy frameworks has discouraged most of the western players further expanding their dealings with African businesses.

One of the most serious challenges is the lack of serious banking alternatives for businesses that want to grow within Africa and further afield. If automation, mobile payments apps and more recently retail digital banking services have granted some kind of autonomy and solution to individuals or small businesses, this has not yet been the case for larger entities, especially when dealing with cross-border capital flows.

The covid-19 crisis has proven, on a massive scale that it is possible to do without physical banking infrastructures and this alone has been a tremendous boost to digital finance and FinTech’s all over the world.

This is a lesson that should be immediately learned by both the private and institutional stakeholders of African businesses.

In particular, African financial services providers now have the opportunity to leapfrog existing technologies to adopt the most advanced solutions, in the same way that telecoms infrastructure evolved from hardly any telephone landlines to massive mobile adoption two decades ago.

As such, the increased adoption of fintech services can improve African businesses competitiveness in more than one way:

  • Access to capital: in order to increase trade or grow their activity, businesses need capital, may it be for trade finance, corporate loans, venture capital or equity investment. Unfortunately, capital is often scarce in Africa. On the other hand, and ironically, trillions of dollars are being invested in negative yield bearing bonds. To generate a more attractive and positive return, these investors could be tempted to take a riskier approach and channel funding to Africa.
    • By developing P2P investment platforms or by giving access for businesses to online trade finance aggregators or funding in search of attractive returns, African businesses could meet needs of investors and have capital investment deployed faster.

 

  • Data availability and reliability: one of the most quoted reasons for financial service providers to avoid African business, in spite of the high-return / high growth opportunity, is the difficulty to access readily available and fully reliable data to support credit risk or investment analysis:
    • Using blockchain and cloud storage to create a set of incorruptible data points accessible from anywhere in the world could encourage many more financiers and investors to channel funding to African businesses.

 

  • Free and homogenous flows of capital: the massive diversity of tax systems, currencies, regulations as well as cultural and organisational customs makes it exceedingly difficult for African businesses to deploy on a pan-African scale. Even more so on an international scale.
    • Developing pan-African instant payment solutions (like SEPA protocol in the EU) as well as using recognised and secure digital currencies for cross-border exchanges are now technologically possible and these solutions should be explored ASAP by most influential and forward thinking stakeholders.

 

A lot of the above is not completely new and significant progress has been made thanks to a growing population of tech incubators dedicated to fintech’s across Africa along with several private or institutional initiatives, mostly around financial inclusion and financial education and digitisation. But again, we are missing the big opportunity as the focus is still around individuals and small, local businesses, not cross-border flows.

However, the pandemic has created the perfect economic and behavioural storm which makes today’s situation an ideal springboard to leap forward.

  • Adoption rates of innovative solutions by businesses in the West have skyrocketed creating a massive testbed for technologies and solutions that should have taken years before becoming mainstream.
  • The Pan-African trade agreement now signed by more than 50 countries and ratified by more than 30 is a huge and ground-breaking progress and could be a game-changer if supported by the right technology.
  • Massive amounts of investors around the world are looking for opportunities and yields, and even a tiny fraction of it could significantly boost the African economy, while the West remains in recovery mode, as long as we are able to create a proper vessel and the right tools to deploy it and generate returns and / or growth.

Such an opportunity has never presented itself in this precise configuration, and I am convinced that we are able to take advantage of this and harness the power of innovation together with the growth appetite of African businesses and stakeholders. The opportunity is now and we can easily put Africa at the forefront of sustainable economic growth in the world for the next decade, starting today.

The author is Simon Tobelem, the Forbes featured CEO of ARIE Group, a Financial Services Group based in Europe, Africa and Asia, who  launched in 2018 the first native digital regulated Investment Bank in Mauritius