Amid the oil price collapse and COVID-19, what’s in store for Africa’s economy? 

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University (lower left), takes part in the inaugural session of Global Perspectives, a virtual speaker series designed by Northeastern’s Young Global Leaders. Composite photo by Northeastern University.

With a private sector that has dealt with constant difficulties, such as crashes in oil prices, food security, and the lack of infrastructure and electricity shortages across the continent, can African nations become independent from oil, and to what extent?

These were themes tackled by the inaugural session of Global Perspectives, a virtual speaker series designed by Northeastern’s Young Global Leaders that launched on Thursday. The program focused on how the combination of the oil price collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic has created new and unforeseen challenges among Africa’s oil-exporting countries.

Bassel Jounblat, a 2017 graduate of Northeastern and a member of the university’s Young Global Leaders program who works at a private equity fund, moderated a discussion that featured a handful of leaders in business, agriculture, and technology. The speakers dove into the unique challenges facing Africa, the region’s current ecosystem landscape, and shared ideas about what the future could hold for the continent’s economy.

“I personally believe that what you are doing in terms of focusing on the global perspectives is more needed than ever,” said Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern. “Why? Because we are living in a period where every society is retrenching. Take the issue of COVID-19. We’re all dependent on each other. A virus doesn’t have boundaries. Similarly, when you look at energy, when you look at climate change, the same situation holds. More than ever, a global perspective is needed.”

Oye Hassan-Odukale, a former managing director and chief executive officer of an underwriting firm in Nigeria, pointed out that there is a diversity of macroeconomic environments within Africa, and said while the resources, manpower, and talent are there, adequate policies in addressing this matter are missing from the government.

In response to a question about how financial projections capture the associated risk of the oil industry, and how that impacts the activity of foreign investments into African countries, Nnena Nkongho, a principal at an investment company that is working toward the digital transformation of the African continent, said that similar to other oil-producing nations, African countries are working to diversify their reliance on oil. “I think that both a trend of looking for cleaner energy sources and just for having a broader based economy are reasons enough for a double focus on that,” she said.

Rotimi Williams, an entrepreneur who’s working to transform agriculture in Africa, shed light on how oil is linked to the supply chain of other sectors, such as agriculture. He highlighted ways in which wind and oil prices have affected agriculture, the financial challenges of importation, and said that these challenges also present an opportunity for the agricultural sector to grow. 

The speakers also delved into the readiness of African nations in confronting COVID-19. Pointing out that poverty is a comorbidity, Nkongho highlighted the issue of sanitation as well as factors that make observing physical distancing guidelines difficult in some African states.

“If people don’t leave the house, they don’t eat,” Nkongho said. “And the lack of public infrastructure in many African nations will clearly make fighting the disease challenging.” 

At the same time, she said she is encouraged to see the technological innovations that the pandemic has spurred by compelling producers and suppliers to modernize at a faster rate. There’s a corner shop in Lagos, she said, that has had a perpetually broken card machine, forcing patrons to use cash—until now.

“In the aftermath of COVID, the store has suddenly made it a real priority to work with mobile money and electronic forms of payment in a way that we’ve been encouraging or trying to really reduce our reliance on cash for many years in Nigeria,” she said. “I think that people are thinking globally more about the use and integration of online education models, e-health models.” 

Hassan-Odukale said that while the death rates from COVID-19 are still low in Nigeria and across Africa, the “fear factor” of asymptomatic cases is high.

And Williams said that, in a way, the pandemic has exposed how much food is being produced in rural areas, now that many of the ports and borders have been closed. He said that the pandemic has also hindered the ability of farmers to work or move around from state to state, which has posed challenges for the industry.

“So now we realize that we’re really not producing as much as we thought we were producing, and also our reliance on the importation of rice, and wheat and the likes from other countries as well,” Williams said.

Northeastern’s Young Global Leaders program comprises more than 100 graduates who advise university leadership and help to strengthen Northeastern’s network of international alumni.

Ayo Oyebanjo, who led the question-and-answer section of the program, is a member of the Young Global Leaders, as is Oriteme Banigo, who introduced the program.

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