At the start of March, before the novel coronavirus kicked us hard in the ribs, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and Trademark East Africa released a report titled Creating a Unified Regional Market: Towards the Implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area in East Africa.
It was music to the ears of East Africanistas, punting that East Africa could earn $1.8 billion in welfare gains, and see the creation of two million jobs from the successful implementation of African Continental Free Trade Area in East Africa (AfCFTA), which is scheduled to become operational in July this year.
As it happens, some optimists see July as the time when we will have found treatment for Covid-19, and will be emerging from our lockdown caves, and beginning to work on recovering from the wreckage of the virus. The pessimists are talking of 18 months.
If the optimists win, it would be perfect timing for AfCFTA—or at least people like me thought.
One of the big talking points in the wake of Covid-19, is that it has shown us the perils of long global supply chains, and over dependence on few suppliers—mainly China—for the goods that we need.
When goods could no longer be shipped as the world locked down, medicines from China and India, critical supplies like masks, and even food, begun to run out.
The thinking is that we shall see a dramatic diversification of the sources from which countries and companies buy products and services, and also a major shift towards buying them from nearer home.
President Yoweri Museveni has spoken on this a couple of times during his national addresses on TV, saying a positive outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic is that more industries will now be built in Uganda.
Most face masks for East Africa could, in this scenario, be made in Nairobi, pain killers in Kampala, and plastic gloves in Kigali.
That way, if some disease befalls a corner of the world, if the worst comes to the worst, you put boxes of plastic gloves in a mukokoteni (cart) and wheel it over a couple of days from Kigali into Uganda.
On a bigger scale, most other goods coming into East Africa would be sourced from within the continent. The biggest driver of AfCFTA then, would be the coronavirus!
I ran this scenario by a good African in the US, who globetrots selling technology solutions, and told him he might want to think differently about the continent given the likely post-coronavirus opportunities.
He brought me back to earth. In his view, the pre-coronavirus supply chains are kaput, yes, but companies will not become parochial and secure next door because it is near. He said what he was hearing from business leaders, is that when they reassess their supply lines, they would rather source from countries that threw everything—artificial intelligence, amazing technology, and human resources—at Covid-19 rather than a neighbour who didn’t. And Asia, he thought, would emerge even a bigger winner.
If that is the case, the East African nations that will come out with a competitive advantage will not be the ones that were most ruthless with quarantines, but the ones that were smartest. Go figure.
Charles Onyango-obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]