It is not easy to comprehend the coronavirus outbreak in its global entirety and keep up with its fast-moving developments. It’s even more difficult to understand what it means in a place that is far away and very different from where you live. While the general principles of good hygiene and basic concepts of social distancing and sheltering at home are universal, the contexts in which they are applied are not uniform. Even small differences in economic and political systems, healthcare infrastructures, cultures, news and social media platforms, histories, and more, can lead to very different strategies, experiences, and outcomes across communities.
Being globally connected and locally relevant has always been important to the Global Business School Network. In most weeks, we are working with members and partners across six continents. In the last several days, however, I was able to channel much of my time and energy into Africa, as I engaged in two special opportunities to learn about how the continent is experiencing and addressing COVID-19.
First, I talked with Carl Manlan, who is the COO of Ecobank Foundation. I am fortunate to talk frequently with Africans, in Africa, about Africa, but Carl always brings extra clarity to conversations that span the continent. He describes his current role as a “development practitioner working for an African financial institution.” Prior to Ecobank, Carl contributed to health financing through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and worked at the Economic Commission for Africa as a Mo Ibrahim Fellow. He also worked with the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) on a private sector initiative to assist the African Union fight Ebola in West Africa.
Carl kindly agreed to take what was supposed to be a one-to-one catch up meeting and do it live, on Zoom, so that others can be a part of it. He was insightful, as always, and rather than summarize our conversation, I invite you to watch the video, read his articles, and follow him on Twitter @CarlManlan.
Second, I participated as a judge in the Africa Takes on COVID-19, which was the third in a series of MIT COVID-19 Challenge virtual events. Although it was conceived only two weeks prior, applications were received from more than 2,300 prospective participants and 300 potential mentors, from which organizers selected 1,500 participants and 200 mentors, with more than half of the total from Africa. Over 48 hours from Friday to Sunday, these people worked in self-selected teams to define problems, outline solutions, develop and practice pitches, and more.
There were 10 tracks across two broad areas: strengthening the health system and protecting vulnerable populations. I was one of five judges assigned to Track I, which was about “Enabling Work and Supporting Livelihoods” and carried the following prompt:
Within communities that survive on daily wages, a complete economic shutdown is an immediate threat to their lives. Given that such communities do not have robust social protections, and run the risk of low access to food and basic amenities, how can we enable people to safely maintain parts of commerce essential to their survival? How do we address the informal sector?
Let me just say, WOW! We, the judges for Track I, heard 23 amazing pitches in two hours on Sunday afternoon. That’s one every five minutes. Each team had three minutes for their presentation and two minutes to address our questions. MeanwhileÑin real time, we scored each team on four criteria: impact, innovation, implementation, and presentation. I had to work and think faster (and with greater agility) than ever — just to keep up with everyone.
Thanks to my fellow judges for the questions they asked, which helped me to see the solutions from different perspectives. And thank you to David Capodilupo and Stu Krusell at MIT Sloan for your leadership in convening the Challenge and inviting GBSN to be a partner to amplify its impactÑit is why GBSN exists.
Across the two experiences I learned much about Africa and the difficulties it faces in the fight against COVID-19. Many African communities have limited access to clean water and adequate health care. There are many densely populated areas where people cannot avoid living and working in close physical proximity. Without much manufacturing experience, it is hard for Africa to ramp-up production of needed equipment, such as PPE, test, masks, and ventilators. And it is hard to compete for such equipment globally. African countries often lack the “fiscal space” to support the extended lock-downs required to “flatten the curve.” Many of its economies were hit hard and early by sudden collapses in tourism, remittances, and commodity exports attributed to the coronavirus outbreak.
But experiences also helped me to appreciate the special advantages that Africa brings to its fight, and the world’s fight, against the virus and the economic challenges it brings. These advantages include previous experiences with Ebola, which included a coalition of 50 countries even while the disease was largely limited to three countries. The advantages include the foundation already created by investments and innovations in digital and mobile financial services. I learned about solidarity funds, thriving startup ecosystems, and the differences we can make by putting the last mile first in healthcare.
I came away from the two experiences feeling confident and optimistic about Africa’s future. Africa can and will hold its own in the fight again COVID-19. And I came away with new energy for the work we do at GBSN. For it is not only about educating managers and entrepreneurs for places like Africa, so they will have the talent needed to generate prosperity, it is also about making a positive difference for sustainable development everywhere. For that, I believe the rest of the world can learn and benefit from the leadership and innovation of Africa.
Dan LeClair is the Chief Executive Officer at the Global Business School Network. Widely recognized as a thought leader in management education, Dan is the author of over 80 research reports, articles, and blogs, and has delivered more than 170 presentations in 30 countries.