Africa: Economic recovery may be long but could be transformative
Africa's economic recovery may be long but it could be transformative, states a new report.

Specialist risk consultancy Control Risks and independent global advisory NKC African Economics, the Africa-focused subsidiary of Oxford Economics, have launched the fifth edition of the Africa Risk-Reward Index.

The index offers a comparative snapshot of market opportunities and risks across the continent. It provides a grounded, longer-term outlook of key trends shaping the investment landscape in major African economies, which should inform the strategies of organisations looking to invest in or grow their business in Africa. Investors seeking to minimise risks and maximise rewards are cautioned not to focus on headlines, but rather on specific country, sector and project contexts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly eroded the overall improvement in risk-reward scores seen across the African continent in recent years, but this should not deter investors. Africa’s economic recovery may be prolonged and uneven, but it could also be transformative.

Read more about:
Economic transformation

The pandemic’s huge economic cost has triggered a universal drop in our reward scores, but the impact on risk scores has been more varied. Ethiopia has seen the largest ratings drops as COVID-19-induced challenges combine with escalating ethnic tensions in the context of a delayed election. 

Egypt’s risk score has remained relatively steady, but its reward score has been badly hit by the triple blow of the pandemic, low oil prices and plummeting tourism revenues. Algeria’s risk score has improved since the mass protests and landmark elections of 2019, but challenges for its oil-dependent economy have still dragged down its overall score.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis, but Africa’s recovery will be slower and more uneven than most,” warns Barnaby Fletcher, associate director at Control Risks. “However, this recovery will be an opportunity for governments across the continent to address structural constraints and promote new solutions. We are already seeing signs that they are doing so, and for investors this opens up some interesting opportunities.”

This 2020 edition of the Africa Risk-Reward Index examines the longer-term implications of COVID-19 on Africa. The first article looks at the longer-term impact of COVID-19 and imagines a post-pandemic landscape, while the second explores the role that African tech can play in revitalising more traditional industries. The last article covers the growing efforts by both external and domestic actors to manipulate the public debate in Africa through influence operations and disinformation campaigns, and the risks these efforts pose to commercial companies.

Post-pandemic: The impact of COVID-19 and outlooks for Africa’s economic recovery

The immediate impact of COVID-19 will see Africa experience its first recession in 25 years, but more worrying is the lack of fiscal headroom available to African governments to engage in stimulus spending. For many countries, economic recovery will have to be driven by their private sectors, which were already weak and have only become weaker during the pandemic.

“The economic impact of COVID-19 will be varied but the recovery will be even more so” says Jacques Nel, head of Africa macro at NKC African Economics. “The optimists will hope to see a race to the top as governments undertake desperately needed reforms, while the pessimists will see a continent set back more than a decade. The reality will be somewhere in between, with each country finding a unique spot on this spectrum.”

However, there are already indications that the scale of this crisis is prompting some welcome reforms. Faced with a volatile global landscape, African governments have a pressing need to develop downstream manufacturing, regional supply chains and domestic capital markets. There are also indications that large portions of the workforce are entering the formal economy to access government financial support and cope with pandemic containment measures.

Some of these trends were set in motion before its outbreak, but COVID-19 seems to have accelerated them. Investors who stay with Africa despite the current downturn will not only have an important role to play in its recovery, but will also see some exciting changes and opportunities.

The great enabler: How Africa is using new digital solutions to revitalise old industries

Investment into African tech has reached record levels in recent years. These are likely to fall in 2020, a consequence of both recent high-profile sector struggles and the impact of COVID-19 on external finance. However, any such decline should be viewed as an opportunity to reset expectations and approaches, not as an indication that the affected sectors are becoming less attractive.

COVID-19 has served to emphasise the need for tech and digital solutions across the continent. It has sparked the development of healthcare apps to help fight the pandemic, e-commerce platforms to facilitate life under lockdown, and new payment and microinsurance systems.

Digital and tech is set to play a far greater role in post-pandemic Africa than it ever did before. The wave of informal workers and companies entering the formal economy will need access to basic financial and legal services, which are likely to be provided through online or mobile platforms. Digital solutions may also help facilitate the growing push to build regional supply chains.

Hostile narratives: Reputation and African geopolitics in the age of influence operations

Africa has always struggled to set its own narrative and get past generalisations that cast the entire continent as beyond redemption or the next economic powerhouse. This struggle is becoming more acute as internal and external actors actively push false narratives through influence operations and disinformation campaigns.

Foreign powers engaged in such tactics are motivated the geopolitical competition over Africa, which has steadily intensified over the past decade. African governments are also building their own capacity to mount such campaigns.

Investors should not assume that such activities impact only governments. Foreign investment is frequently the subject of political debate in African countries, and when that debate is distorted by external actors, individual companies face significant reputational risks. Not only that, but disinformation campaigns have been used by militant groups for recruitment and to cause peaceful protests to escalate into violence, posing security threats to commercial operations.

The risk posed by influence operations in Africa should not be overstated, though the trend is growing as social media is adopted more widely across the continent. Just as grasping the political and business landscape can help investors avoid pitfalls and maximise their chances of success, understanding the information landscape – what the narrative is and who is seeking to influence it – will become increasingly important.

Download the 2020 Africa Risk-Reward Index.