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Interview Edem Adzogenu “We as AfroChampions see COVID-19 as an opportunity to accelerate AfCFTA”

Edem Adzogenu, co-chair of the AfroChampions Initiative, takes a look back at the projects conducted in 2020. A year marked by the pandemic that was seen by the Initiative both as a test for a continent that must learn to “ put hands together” and as an opportunity to accelerate the AfCFTA. A look back at AfroChampions’ actions and achievements in 2020. Interview. 

How do you see the year 2020? A complex year, with the health crisis, but at the same time a critical year with the last steps before the entry into force of the AfCFTA…

The year 2020 started with great expectations and excitement, when the heads of state met on February 2020 to announce the AfCFTA operationalization in March 2020. 

We also launched our Trillion Dollar Investment Framework for the private sector to support AfCFTA. This three-pronged initiative – combining a mechanism to identify and implement strategic projects for the continent, a process to monitor African states’ commitments to the AfCFTA, and an investment vehicle – was formally endorsed by African Union Heads of State at their annual summit in February 2020. Based on their official decision, we, the AfroChampions team and network, were supposed to work with the ministers of finance, ministers of trade and ministers of infrastructure, to implement the Trillion Dollar framework which is really a private sector scheme to drive investment into Africa for the AfCFTA.

“AfCFTA is the stimulus package that we need to be able to cushion all our efforts against the pandemic

Then COVID19 hit us as you know in March. Borders started closing, together with airspaces – and we went into lockdown.  We were confronted with disruption of supply chains. It created a major risk for the survival and success of continental the African free trade area agreement which was supposed to be implemented last March.  Naturally, everybody then started to focus on how to be resilient, how to save our borders and how to prevent the transmission of the disease.

As AfroChampions, we saw this as an opportunity – and as one of the biggest tests for the continent. 

The test: would we be able to look at each other and join hands to fight together? As such, the AfCFTA is precisely the stimulus package that we need to cushion all our efforts against the pandemic.

The opportunity: it comes from the declining demand for natural resources, raw materials, and also from the fact that we are competing with the rest of the world to access those basic commodities that we need for our survival, such as protective masks, antibacterial gels, pharmaceuticals, etc. So for us AfroChampions, COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to accelerate AfCFTA. 

So, in concrete terms, how has the AfroChampions Initiative been able to continue its mission in 2020? And what is your overall assessment of the projects conducted last year? 

We, in the specific context of 2020, have stayed true to ourselves and our convictions – economic integration and the AfCFTA. We immediately launched our “AfCFTA Zero Year Report” to look at the way African states were committed to the AfCFTA and ready for it.  The report was released with an advocacy campaign, KeepAfCFTAOnTrack, including an op-ed calling for maintaining the institutional process aimed at finalizing the AfCFTA, which was signed by leading representatives of the African business community. 

On the health emergency response: we reached out to the African CDC in the spring 2020 to bring the private sector and the entire African business ecosystem together to mobilize resources. We established, in partnership with Africa CDC, a Board of Trustees in which AfroChampions was represented, along with Afreximbank and other stakeholders. I am happy to say that, to date, the fund has raised close to 70 million dollars in this effort, and that we also received other in-kind contributions. And with respect to immediate response for COVID, the first thing we did was to mobilize resources to support the work of CDC, resources to access medical PPEs and medical ventilators, as well as medical pharmaceuticals. Then, we realized that the real objective is not to succeed in getting supplies from outside Africa.  The real objective is to support countries as they try to build capacities – because people are losing jobs. We, therefore, have started to work with the African Cotton and Textile Industries Federation among others, in Kenya and Uganda, and with some of the leading multinationals to have a certification for us to be able to do medical PPEs and masks.

On the response to the economic challenges resulting from the pandemic, and the new context: another big challenge at that moment was movement of people, since the borders were closed. AfroChampions therefore came up with the AVRIVA program, designed with the African Union – AVRIVA standing for: Accelerated Virtual Resilient Integration for a Vibrant Africa. One of AVRIVA’s key components is the movement of people. As the borders were closed, we started thinking of a way to re-open them, a way that would be safe, without requiring countries to either force people to go through a lot of tests, or to prevent people from travelling because the certificates would not be reliable. The solution was an application. It has been designed thanks to the African private sector and thanks to African resourcefulness – especially that of young people! The result is an online platform. Its aim is to maintain a certain level of digital vigilance in the movement of people, to the point where entry requirements can be harmonized between countries when people move. 

“Basically, what we have done with AVRIVA is to prevent the lack of mobility from slowing down the AfCFTA

AVRIVA first led to the development of PanaBIOS, a technological tool, developed with the support of KoldChain, a startup from Kenya, in collaboration with the African Standards Organization (ARSO), the Afreximbank, the Trade and Development Bank, Africa CDC and the African Tourism Board. We then, offered it to the Africa CDC and the African Union to make it available to member states at a low cost. I am happy to announce that a lot of organizations are now pressing countries to deploy this system. Airlines are integrating it; and many laboratories based on the continent or outside have registered. The success comes from the very pragmatic approach, because the system is fully interoperable: it helps us integrate countries’ existing platforms so that people on the continent can travel freely – while creating a shield that allows us to know what is happening on the continent. This is essential for the movement of people, especially for the revival of the tourism sector, which sometimes represents 15 to 40% of the GDP of African countries.   

The other aspect of AVRIVA is the super-app that we developed with support from the AfCFTA secretariat – also known as the AfCFTA app. It is basically a platform allowing every SME or individual on the continent to have an ACFTA number, which is almost like a profile. Another feature of that app is that it can share standards.  Many food and pharmaceutical companies operate in their own countries under the auspices of local food and pharmaceutical authorities, but each time they want to sell products in other countries, they have to go through a complex process. This functionality allows the food and drug standardization bodies in countries to work in an integrated way to allow for cross-border verification – again, a very pragmatic approach. This functionality has also been offered to the AfCFTA secretariat, so that it can be made available in other countries. Another feature of the application is a blog that allows people from the continent and around the world to share their vision for the AfCFTA. 

Basically, what we have done with AVRIVA is to prevent the lack of mobility from slowing down the AfCFTA.  While we wait for the buildings, roads and infrastructure which we will need to connect Africa through trade and freight, we can at least use a digital infrastructure!

Why were these particular projects chosen? According to what strategic direction and priorities? 

We were deliberate in choosing these projects. Because we were conscious of the fact that the continent has a track record of formulating policies and ideas at the continental level – which have never been deployed, implemented or executed. We all know about the Yamoussoukro agreement – about the Open Sky – which quite a number of countries have ratified but are struggling to implement. 

“We in AfroChampions sought to become a bridge enabling to identify those projects worth focusing on

We felt there was a disconnection between, on the one hand, those who are supposed to be the implementers, that is to say, the private sector of the business community, and on the other hand, the public sector – and we did not want the AfCFTA to follow that same track. Indeed, it is critical to drive the African integration agenda that our fathers dreamt about. We, at AfroChampions, sought to become a bridge enabling to identify those projects worth focusing on, those whose impact is concrete, tangible and immediate. 

So, if people want to move around, to do physical projects, we need to solve the movement of people issue, whether we like or not. Public health is going to be a major factor to determine how to move around. We needed to ensure that these digital tools be validated. That is why we choose PanaBIOS technology. There is also another support needed there, which is in cyber security – leading to another project under the AVRIVA. The super-app was also important because there is a lot of relief money going to SMEs and we need to help those SMEs to identify themselves in order to be eligible. COVID is an opportunity to position AfCFTA as the driving force to create a more transparent, visible and efficient mechanism in which all the elements required for the movement of goods and services can interact; that is why we developed the super-app. As you see, all this is very consistent. 

What are the first impacts of the projects carried out in 2020? 

One of the key impacts we have has is that we have countries using the platform. This will allow Africa to create its own vaccine passport so that, on the one hand, protocols are harmonized, and that, on the other hand, information about the tests is also harmonized, together with the vaccines, as all this will be essential to determine the level of immunity.

We are extremely proud of this initiative, as many people have already registered. Several thousands people have obtained their AfCFTA numbers, the standards bodies have started to integrate. We think it is a modest but impressive start given the conditions we faced during the pandemic. Our virtual resilience platform can energize Africa, whose resources are still too untapped.

Any idea about the upcoming projects in 2021 or at least about the direction of AfroChampions? 

We have to leverage our strengths. One of these is our youth. We have a young population busting with energy looking for jobs to do. How can we make sure that we channel this energy, so that our young people become a reservoir of hope for others? We will therefore continue to work to bring our youth into an ecosystem either through SMEs i.e. retraining programs or through our Caravan value chain accelerator. Caravan Africa aims to build the capacity of micro-entrepreneurs to develop or integrate into value chains – with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills – to address challenges and opportunities in strategic industries in their respective countries – such as agribusiness, textiles and fashion, technical professional services (such as electrical and plumbing), cosmetics, or interior design. 

We will also continue our sensitization efforts with the AfCFTA Secretariat to encourage countries that need to ratify the AfCFTA Treaty to do so, and to encourage countries that have not prepared AfCFTA strategies aimed to help their economies to benefit from the new rules to take action in that regard. 

“ Our motto is: more projects, less talk! And above all, advocacy and partnerships”

We are going also to bring a lot of work on raising resources for Orango, the investment vehicle that AfroChampions is supporting; it will help invest in strategic sectors such as green resources and projects, for example. A lot of investments coming to countries do not go into these fields. We should look at projects that have multiple effects in these specific areas. We also are going to look into those strategic investments that are needed to build capacities on the continent, manufacturing, industrialization and value chains. 

What we initiated with PanaBios has now become Africa CDC Trusted Travel initiative which has now a component that is the trusted vaccines initiative. The latter will eventually evolve into an African Union vaccine passport. We will continue to work on this because we feel that, by working with partners in Africa and across the world, we will be able to create the e-health backbone for the continent. Therefore, when future epidemics or pandemics come, Africa would be ready to analyze them exactly. Because we know that there is Ebola and we still have a lot of other diseases plaguing the continent, as well as the new COVID surge with variants. Therefore, we need to have a new public health order underpinned by digital platforms that enable countries to talk to each other, share information in real time and be able to track and trace and at the same time isolate the epidemics.

Our motto is: more projects, less talk! And above all, advocacy, and partnerships, with public sector institutions, with private sector organizations – that need polices to protect business development – with global partners who care about Africa and are willing to bring resources and expertise to add value to what we are already doing in the continent, and of course with the diaspora community – where we think there is a lot of untapped wealth and resources and all are key to be able to support the continent. 

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