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While government resources are under strain, the private sector in many African countries has stepped up to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Nigeria’s private sector, one of the most affluent in Africa, has made significant contributions. Report by Linus Unah in Lagos.
As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread across Nigeria, public health officials are ramping up efforts to test more people and provide care for people who have contracted the acute respiratory illness. The number of confirmed cases in Nigeria skyrocketed to 343 as of April 13, of which 91 patients have been discharged and 10 dead.
The steep rise in cases, a sign of ongoing transmission, has forced Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari to order a two-week restriction on movement and business, except those providing essential services, in Lagos, Abuja, and Ogun state. The strict restrictions, initially imposed on March 30, have been extended for another two-weeks.
The severity of the pandemic and its devastating effect on the limited resources available – daily laboratory testing capacity is around 1,500 day – have pushed the private sector in the West African nation to step up and help the government to fight the virus.
On March 26, the Coalition Against COVID-19, known as CACOVID, was formed. Led by Aliko Dangote, Africa’s wealthiest man, the coalition is backed by Access Bank Group, Zenith Bank, Guaranty Trust Bank, and several others.
The mission is simple: mobilize private sector leadership and resources to support health facilities to respond to the crisis but also to use their reach to increase awareness about the pandemic.
“There is a high risk of the virus spreading through much of the population if we do not come together to fight this battle,” Isaac Okorafor director of corporate communications at the Central Bank of Nigeria warned at the behest of the coalition.
The group, a mix of corporations, philanthropists and donors, is already providing thousands of beds to Lagos, Kano, Rivers, Abuja, Enugu and Borno states and is hoping to quickly set up testing facilities and treatment centres in some states. It aims to get private labs involved in testing to speed up the process.
The ultimate goal is to test at least two million people, the group’s website notes.
Total donation to the CACOVID relief fund totalled over $55.7m as of April 6, with Dangote and the Central bank donating $5.1m each.
Other major private players such as Segun Agbaje (Guaranty Trust Bank), Jim Ovia (Zenith Bank), Herbert Wigwe (Access Bank), Tony Elumelu (United Bank for Africa), Abdulsamad Rabiu of BUA Group, Folorunsho Alakija of Famfa Oil Limited, Oba Otudeko (First Bank), Femi Otedola of Amperion Power, billionaire businessman Mike Adenuga of Globacom and the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation have provided $2.59m each.
The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation alongside some oil companies has pledged $30m to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control to improve patient care, medical supplies and equipment.
A top official at Guaranty Trust Bank told African Business that the private sector’s support is mainly driven by genuine philanthropy.
“We want to give back to society,” he says. “We have to be proactive and see where we can step in within the shortest amount of time possible.”
Nigeria has a very vibrant economy brimming with big corporations and banks which operate across African countries and in Europe and the United States.
“I think what most companies have come to realize that the vast majority of their customers are daily and weekly wage earners and movement restrictions or widening of COVID-19 crisis would affect their bottom line in so far as their main customers do not have spending power to purchase goods and services,” said Ikemesit Effiong, head of research at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based political and economic risk advisory.
Some wealthy businessmen and big corporations have gone beyond donating to the relief fund to directly supporting states to deal with the disease. For instance, Union Bank contributed $130,000 to the Lagos State emergency food response programme which provides food supplies to low-income families following restrictions on movement.
By extension, The UBA Foundation, part of the Lagos-headquartered United Bank for Africa, provided $14m to support efforts locally and in countries where it has operations in Africa.
“This is a time when we must all play our part,” Tony O. Elumelu, UBA Group chairman, said in a statement. “This global pandemic must bring citizens, governments and business leaders together – and quickly.”
Agusto Consulting, a Lagos-based credit rating agency with operations in Kenya and Rwanda, believes that the private sector’s technical and financial backing would reduce the health risks and “place Nigeria on a strong footing for economic recovery.”
Ezra Ihezie, an economist based in the Nigerian capital Abuja, thinks that business do not operate solely for profit-making.
“Every purpose of a business that will be sustainable in the future is not always centred on profit,” Ihezie explains. “What makes a business to survive is the role it plays in helping the society solve its societal problems.”
The private sector’s efficiency is highly valued in Nigeria. In just about five days, Guaranty Trust Bank partnered Lagos state authorities to build a 110-bed isolation facility at the Onikan Stadium.
“We are excited about our private sector partners that are answering the call to assist us with visible impact,” remarked Lagos state governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu.
Effiong of SBM Intelligence says the Nigerian government is “cash-strapped” and lacks sufficient resources to fully tackle this pandemic on its own, so “private capital becomes a very useful stopgap.”
But why are we seeing far more corporate philanthropy in Nigeria and South Africa?
“I think it’s a mixed bag,” Effiong cautions.
“You’ve got a situation where, with the exception of South Africa and Egypt, Nigeria has got more billionaires than other African countries and those countries are not in as precarious a fiscal position as we are.
“High-net-worth Nigerians whose incomes are disproportionately dependent on a Nigerian economy, at least, getting by, recognize the importance and the imperative to jump in and pool resources together”.
But he warns that there might likely be a political dimension to the massive private sector support seen in Nigeria.
“A lot of the people that have been contributing to this [relief refund] are friends of the government…and have been known to support big-ticket initiatives by this administration even when some of these initiatives stand in contrast to their own economic interest,” the head of research at SBM Intelligence said.
“So, in the end it isn’t much of a surprise that this people are once again displaying their loyalty by contributing to what is the most pressing challenge that the government is facing.”