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The key to reviving Africa’s economic backbone 

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Map of Africa. Photo: aperianglobal

Over the past year, the term ‘‘digital transformation’’ has gone from an industry buzzword to a firmly entrenched necessity for survival. Hard lockdowns and stay-home orders, while necessary, also created a huge challenge for some of the continent’s largest economies grappling with the pandemic’s cost to gross domestic product (GDP).

Suffice it to say, life, work and business on the continent are nowhere near back to normal just yet. A look at COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports paints a picture clear as day. These aggregated, anonymised insights chart movement trends over time by geography, across different categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces and residential areas.

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When comparing the coronavirus’ impact on mobility across Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, based on data from May 28, 2021, versus baseline data gleaned during a five-week period from January 03 – February 06, 2020, a picture emerges. Visits to retail and recreational places such as restaurants, cafés, shopping centres and cinemas have only slightly increased (by nine per cent in South Africa, 15 per cent in Nigeria and 21 per cent in Kenya). The picture is less promising when looking at visits to workplaces with a decrease of nine per cent in South Africa compared to the baseline and increases of six per cent and 12 per cent in Nigeria and Kenya consecutively.
 
These retail, recreational and workplace sites account for a large number of the small and medium businesses (SMBs) on the continent (which incidentally make up roughly 90 per cent of African businesses according to the International Finance Corporation) to have particularly been affected by the pandemic. These same SMBs make up the backbone of the continent’s economy as they account for 80 per cent of the region’s employment, establishing a new middle class and fuelling demand for new goods and services.
   
The African Development Bank’s African Economic Outlook 2021 notes that the effects of COVID-19 could reverse the past two decades’ hard-won gains in poverty reduction as the pandemic plunged the region into its first recession in more than 25 years and impacted vulnerable populations such as the poor, informal sector workers, women and young people.

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More positively, however, the World Bank (in the April 2021 edition of its Africa Pulse report titled, ‘‘COVID-19 and the future of work in Africa: Emerging trends in digital technology adoption’’ notes that the way forward for African economies may just lie in “policies that foster investments in innovation and digital technologies.” 

So, the picture is not all doom and gloom if we can ensure that African SMBs are not only included in the digital economy but afforded the necessary skills and opportunities to adopt technology that is essential to their survival. This can also place them in a position to generate more jobs and contribute meaningfully to the continent’s economy once again, despite limitations to everyday mobility across the board.

Google Search Trends data shows that the fall in mobility has been matched with an increased number of people looking for small to medium businesses online, with interest reaching a five-year high in September 2020 in Nigeria alone. As more consumers look for products and services online, it is important that businesses looking to grow now start to show up.

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Helping SMBs take advantage of the solutions at their fingertips is a collective effort of availing digital technology, skills and know-how and raising awareness. For example, at Google, we’ve been growing our Grow with Google tools and programmes to continue helping businesses and individuals in Africa to restart, rebuild and find new work, particularly the most vulnerable groups who have been hardest hit. Yet, while many small businesses understand the importance of the Internet, many have been slow to adopt online strategies due to varying challenges around understanding how to use available tools.

Our Google for the small business portal has been developed with these challenges in mind and presents itself as a one-stop-shop featuring not only the solutions and tools but also much-needed guidance on how to use these tools for growth and success. 

Challenges brought on by the pandemic don’t have to mean the end of the story of Africa’s rise. The solution to the revival of the continent’s economic backbone is quite literally at its fingertips and we remain committed to helping individuals and businesses in Africa use technology to digitally transform, restart, recover and thrive again.

Aderemi-Makinde is Sub-Saharan Africa Head of Brand and Reputation, Google.

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