Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter provide a chance to address inequality

Africa and the world have a unique opportunity to use Coronavirus and Black Lives Matter as a transformative reset

Some 3 weeks ago, the unwarranted and unacceptable death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, began a long overdue conversation about racism and inequality. In the midst of various protests in large and smaller cities across the developed world, a statue of Edward Colston, an English merchant and philanthropist, whom was later found to have made much of his wealth from the slave trade, was toppled and thrown into the harbour in Bristol. Some 20,000 people were estimated to have died on his slave ships, a similar number to those who have died since 2014, trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. While we should not carelessly compare the slave trade and migration, they both have a parallel in the indifference and inequality, that are at the root of many of our modern day problems. Widening inequality has become the defining challenge of our time and nowhere is this more evident than in Africa and in its largest economies.

A year ago, Europe was dealing with another migration season as Africans sought to cross the Sahara and the Mediterranean in search of jobs and “a better life”. The media focused on the geographic challenges of crossing a dangerous and unforgiving sea in over-loaded boats. However, the story was a more complicated one, as the migration was an economic journey, with the gaping economic disparity available across the Mediterranean. Perhaps the untold story is that those making this journey are often not, as one would expect, Africa’s “5th eleven”, rather their journey demonstrates that they have some ability, desire, vision, courage, persistence and ingenuity, all of which ordinarily should be valuable in a commercial or value-creation context. What does Africa need to do, to create the opportunities to keep these migrants on the continent, and why is this relevant in a world currently dealing with the ravages of the global pandemic, COVID-19?

Coronavirus has impacted us all and the interconnectedness of our world made that inevitable. If we needed an event to remind us that we all share the same sky, this one has done so.  It has also incontrovertibly linked the health of the world’s population as a whole with the performance of all local and national economies.  It should also provoke, in all likelihood, a re-set in global thinking and perhaps economics and we hope, a possible desirable outcome could be a re-allocation of investment capital over the next decade. COVID has not impacted all nations equally and Africans, by and large, have no safety net or healthcare systems, to support them. Uncontrolled coronavirus in global cities like Lagos, Cairo, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Khartoum and Johannesburg, would have an enormous human cost. We need to support those countries in the short-term to save lives but we also need to ask ourselves what could have been done differently and what can be done to develop Africa’s economies and infrastructure, both economic and social. Unless we address inequalities, diseases will continue to find safe-harbour in the poorest parts of the world.

Infrastructure investment will support diversification (away from commodities), a more productive base and, importantly, jobs in the continent. The alternative will be a lot more boats in the Mediterranean. Infrastructure investment, not aid, is the catalyst for change. Infrastructure investment in power and energy networks, transportation infrastructure and roads, as well as in digital communication (“the infrastructure of the youth”), creates a platform where investments are catalysed into agriculture, manufacturing, mining, retail, SMEs, as well as into education, healthcare and security. These investments create jobs and bring, across Africa, much needed development and diversification, a more competitive productive base, improvements in the balance of trade and payments and, in the medium to long-term, macro and price stability. The job creation will also lead to increased savings and pensions, as well as financial inclusion and demand for housing, leading to and deepening domestic pools of capital and capital markets. Only with infrastructure investment growing at 15-20% a year, can Africa’s economies outpace their growth in population and achieve close to 10% GDP growth.

Africa’s economies will not and cannot narrow the infrastructure gap or inequality gap, by themselves. If we take Nigeria as an example, its Federal Budget is about US$28 billion; which is only 7% of Nigeria’s formal GDP and less than 25% of that budget (under 2% of GDP) is spent on capex, including infrastructure. With population growth in Nigeria just under 3%, annually, that implies that the country is getting poorer, every year. The infrastructure commitment in the budget is also not necessarily, effectively or efficiently spent and it is now increasingly accepted that the government’s wallet is inadequate.

Global development banks are unable to fix the infrastructure deficit, standalone, as their combined balance sheets are not large enough. However, the capital to invest in Africa’s infrastructure exists and what is needed is an opportunity to reallocate a surplus resource (negative yields?) from the OECD to Africa. This lack of investment in infrastructure is somewhat frustrating, as the asset class has proven to deliver sustainable real returns. Project financed assets have very different credit characteristics to sovereign or corporate debt. Capital markets are key to financing Africa’s infrastructure needs because the traditional transmission mechanisms, working with government, have delivered less desirable results because of poorly developed and non-bankable projects, procurement and sponsor selection weaknesses, and to some extent, corruption.

The Global Infrastructure Hub estimates that Africa needs to spend US$6.7 trillion to meet the SDGs by 2040 (it needs a lot more to match the infrastructure footprint of the OECD). It is estimated that global total assets under management stand at US$111 trillion today, much of which earns negative yields. Tapping into this this asset pool is critical to success. Institutional investors seek listed, well-governed, financially transparent, well diversified, investment vehicles and not, single, greenfield, project risk. Development banks have a preference or predilection for bilateral, private investments. These investments, individually, have limited institutional appeal but, aggregated, offer institutional investors a strong commercial return and are the ultimate impact investment – fixing Africa’s infrastructure deficit.

Just as justice for George Floyd requires redesigning and reappraising ‘structural racism’, reducing global inequality and lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in Africa with the world’s youngest and second largest population, requires a new market-led and private capital approach. It is clear that it is time for a pivot in every sense and instead of aid and the traditional paradigms of support, we believe that OECD nations and the leadership of DFIs have an incredible opportunity to invest in Africa, and utilise OECD legal and capital markets structures to Build Africa.  Whether you believe in and support protests across the world’s cities, we can all agree that no human beings should be left behind.


Bolaji Balogun & Philip Southwell are Partners at Chapel Hill Denham, headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria.

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