By Alexander B. Cummings
On 26 July, my country Liberia celebrates its 174th anniversary. In that time, few national days have arrived on the back of such turmoil. Today, our health workers are fighting day in, day out on the front line against COVID-19. I am proud of how Liberia, like the rest of Africa, is truly united in its determination to overcome the twin threats of a health crisis and the economic slowdown it has triggered.
The pandemic has created a global economic crisis and Africa will emerge from its battle with COVID-19 into a very different economic environment. The IMF predicts that the global economy will grow by six percent on average this year, but Africa’s economies will only grow by 3.4 percent on average. Public debt in sub-Saharan Africa has ballooned by more than 6 percent to an average of 58 percent of GDP in 2020 – the highest point in the last 20 years.
The urgency for immediate change cannot be overstated.
To achieve our ambitions and fulfil our potential, we need to embark on the creation of a new model of economic cooperation, one that combines economic and fiscal development with a nuanced political approach to encourage more business activity and investment across the continent. Showing investors and others that political obstacles can be navigated successfully and reinforcing the structures that provide more stability will be vital to our future success.
I believe lessons from the private sector can help create a formula that will both encourage investment and bring benefits directly to the continent. As I know from my time running Coca Cola’s operations in Africa, putting significant sums of money into a country or area requires planning for the long term and an understanding of how to secure your position against different types of risk.
Firstly, cooperation is key. Whether it was by dramatically increasing the proportion of local African employees, the selection of the right business partner for our bottling plants or working with government or key community figures to ensure the smooth operation of the business, it was clear that we would be stronger and more efficient if we formed as many links to the local country as we could, at all levels of society.
Second, we were clear that those links would be working not just for the corporate benefit, but that of the country of operation too. We established the Coca Cola Africa Foundation to invest in projects to improve the lives of local communities we worked in, such as improving access to drinking water and quality of education. Our actions spoke louder than any positive statements we made, and we made it clear that everyone involved in our business – communities, local suppliers and government included – were bound together by mutual interests and a shared vision of success.
Finally, we were able to use skills, techniques and experience from other countries to improve our approach to new markets. While no two countries in Africa are the same, it is possible to draw similarities between the types of challenges and opportunities that we would face.
For Africa, working together is the best way to increase cooperation on trade policies and facilitate the movement of goods and services, removing barriers to trade and enabling people to make the most of the competitive advantages of both our own countries and our neighbours too. I admire the ambition of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the largest free trade area in the world, which has reduced 90 percent of tariffs on trade among member states.
My own country, Liberia, is a prime example of a nation that can benefit from this kind of cooperative approach to achieve its shared goals. Like other African countries, we suffer from poor infrastructure, poor health facilities, lack of education opportunities and other problems rooted in years of civil war. Despite recent experience of dealing with the Ebola health crisis, as with other nations, COVID-19 has compounded these challenges. We are experiencing a surge in cases, from 2,000 confirmed cases a month ago to over 4,000, accompanied by a rising number of hospitalizations and deaths, with life-saving oxygen in short supply.
Now political players, businesses and charities operating in Liberia have the opportunity to work together to overcoming these challenges, and show a way of sculpting a new social and political pact out of this emergency. The government can work with civil society and multilateral organisations to identify and fill gaps in our pandemic response. Local communities can pull together alongside international and domestic companies to distribute resources and ensure the safety of our people. Our diaspora is providing material support to our health workers and families, using their experience of battling COVID-19 to improve our approach.
A new era of African economic self-sustainability offers the world a valuable, talent-rich trade partner, while a politically reformed Africa with strengthened regional bonds offers a more reliable, value-driven counterpart for international alliances. We can see that international community wants this reality – at the recent G7 summit, development financing institutions and multilateral partners said they intend to invest at least USD 80 billion into the private sector in Africa over the next five years, and the G20 Compact with Africa remains a key framework to enhance the business environment across the continent. Now is the time for our US and European friends to make bolder steps towards helping Africa fulfil its potential, as an equal partner rather than a recipient of aid. This means greater investment in Africa’s infrastructure, business, and resources – and ultimately investment in Africans ourselves.
If we seize the opportunity to relaunch our economic model after the pandemic, we can come out of this period of intense suffering with an exciting, once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform our futures. If we fail to grab this opportunity with both hands, our future and that of our children will be that much more difficult.
Cooperation at all levels of society and belief in our ability are the keys to advancing towards a sustainable, more prosperous future for Africa. I firmly believe that this pandemic offers an unprecedented opportunity for us to reset our continent’s destiny.
Biography – Alexander B Cummings
Alexander B. Cummings is a businessman, philanthropist and politician. He is the founder & Chairman of Cummings Investments Holdings, Ltd., founder of the Cummings Africa Foundation and Political Leader of the Alternative National Congress (ANC) in Liberia. Born and raised in Liberia, Mr. Cummings joined Coca-Cola Company in 1997 after a career in business in the US and across Africa. He worked at Coca-Cola for 19 years until his retirement as Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer of the Coca- Cola Company. He served on the board of Chevron and S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., amongst others.