Unlocking the next frontier of growth

Juliet Ehimuan EMBA2008 on the business landscape and challenges in post-pandemic Africa


The pandemic was a unique event. The disruption was substantial, causing upheavals, economic slowdowns, and a global health crisis, the likes of which the world has not seen in modern times. The crisis would leave billions of people shuttered in their homes for almost a year, usher in a world where remote work became the norm, disrupt global travel, and stretch global supply chains to breaking point.

Africa was not spared this turmoil. The business landscape pre-pandemic was always one of great opportunity and challenges. With a large, young population, the resources were vibrant, but had always contended with poor infrastructure and a challenging policy environment. Businesses had learned to become resilient and adaptable, but the disruption tested even the most robust operations and taught us new lessons.

The first thing the pandemic did was test the resilience of our systems and show the vulnerabilities in the ways we’d previously done business. Work was traditionally structured around physical presence in the office. In the African context, this was even more important because, in most instances, the absence of power or reliable internet and cellular services meant that the office environment was, for most people, the one place that guaranteed some access to the tools necessary for work.

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'Disruption tested even the most robust operations and taught us new lessons.'

Secondly, the lockdown challenged our views on technology as an enabler. We did not utilise the comprehensive features available to us; preferring to physically engage with supply chains, hold face to face meetings with clients, shop and exchange cash for goods in person, or sign contracts with witnesses. Post-pandemic, we have learnt to optimise virtual team platforms like Zoom, Teams and Google Meets, and sign contracts virtually with tools like Docusign. In Rwanda, the number of mobile-money transfers doubled the week after the lockdown was imposed in March 2020, and by late April, users were making 3 million transactions a week, five times the pre-pandemic norm.

Finally, we learnt that business can thrive – even when the world stops. Even during challenging times, a number of businesses thrived. In infrastructure-challenged systems, the pandemic allowed for the development of robust technology platforms that facilitate commerce and payments, and enable supply chains to keep operating. It is therefore not surprising that several African tech companies acquired Unicorn status during the pandemic.

'The digital gig economy has had a profound impact on post-pandemic Africa'

Post-pandemic, there are six sectors that can harness the learnings outlined above and unlock the potential for growth across the continent.

The digital economy has blossomed and businesses have learned to pivot to technology-based solutions. There are new online commercial platforms, digital payments systems, digital currencies, and tech-enabled supply chains.

Education is also experiencing a growth spurt. In 2021, uLesson raised $15 million in Series B round funding. According to Startup list Africa, Edutech startups in Africa have raised $964.8 million in cumulative funding over the past few years and this is expected to reach $1.8 billion by 2024.

Similarly, the digital gig economy has had a profound impact on post-pandemic Africa. Popular online marketplaces for digital giggers such as Fiverr, Upwork and have created thriving hubs for Africans to work remotely with international companies, while giving global organisations access to a wide range of talent and skills that previously were not accessible. Businesses that facilitate access to such talent, or find innovative ways to aggregate the labour and expertise supply will continue to thrive.

'African nations are being viewed as potential alternative sources of energy'

Africa’s climate is well suited to agriculture and there is increasing interest both from within the continent to meet the growing needs, and from external players seeking to diversify their supply to seek new markets. As a result, agriculture is enjoying unprecedented funding as traditional challenges around research, knowledge, optimisation and supply chains are being solved by leveraging technology to increase supply, connect buyers and ease logistics.

Energy is another important area for growth. Global conflicts such as the Russia-Ukraine war have disrupted energy markets. African nations are being viewed as potential alternative sources of energy for countries seeking to wean themselves off Russian-sourced fuels, with many EU countries currently visiting major LNG producers in Africa, looking at long term deals for their economies.

This new interest also gives rise to discussions around renewable energy. Africa’s vast wind and solar resources can provide power and address the continent’s vast energy poverty. This opportunity is starting to get realised as Morocco and Egypt already have some of the largest solar facilities in the world, with more being planned.

Finally, the creative space is perhaps one of the most standout opportunities for growth. African artists and producers routinely reach tens and even hundreds of millions of people by leveraging social media and digital platforms. African beats dominate challenges on social media, and cable channels like Netflix are commissioning original content from African producers. This success creates a real opportunity for digital entrepreneurs who can find undiscovered talent and bring them to a global audience, or promote lesser-known artists to greater levels of exposure and visibility.

Africa’s story has been one of great potential that has been slow to materialise. The unexpected rise in innovation and digital technology may finally see the long-awaited surge. Certainly, the early results following the pandemic have been impressive. While much of the last decade was spent testing various business models, the rest of this decade will be spent scaling the most promising innovations for unlocking the African market.


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