CORONAVIRUS

Ramaphosa launches platform for Covid-19 supplies in Africa

By Peter Fabricius 19 June 2020

South African President and African Union Chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photos: Gallo Images / Media24 / Deaan Vivier | African Union Flag / Wikipedia)

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has launched an online one-stop-shop to address the scarcity and high prices African countries have been confronting in trying to procure critical medical supplies and equipment to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Africa Medical Supplies Platform “has been necessitated by exponential growth in Covid-19 cases and deaths on the continent”, Ramaphosa said on Thursday. 

As of 5pm SA time on Thursday, Africa had registered 268,391 cases and 7,217 deaths, with South Africa having by far the most cases at 80,412, followed by Egypt with 49,219, Nigeria with 17,735, Ghana with 12,590 and Algeria with 11,268. However, Egypt has the highest death toll, with 1,850, followed by South Africa with 1,674, Algeria, 799, Nigeria, 469 and Ghana 66. 

Ramaphosa, in his capacity as AU chairperson, said at a virtual press conference also attended by AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat that the platform would “address shortages and security of supply, ensure price competitiveness and transparency in procurement, reduce logistical delays, simplify payment processes and provide a common platform where governments can access services from quality and certified suppliers”.

He stressed that the platform was giving preference to African manufacturers and suppliers and so would become the basis for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) which was supposed to launch free trade right across Africa on 1 July and also stimulate African industry. The launch has been delayed until 1 January 2021 because of the pandemic. 

The basic principle of the platform is to pool all the requirements of Africa’s 55 nations which creates economies of scale in procuring and pricing essential medical supplies, Ramaphosa said. 

The platform is open only to African governments, who are each given a quota of every different item of supplies, determined according to their populations and their Covid-19 burden. 

Cairo-based Afreximbank will provide credit to countries which cannot afford supplies. South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines will be the key airlines bringing supplies from international suppliers to the hubs of Johannesburg and Addis Ababa, from where they will be flown to other African countries. 

The funds released to African governments by the agreements of international creditors to suspend debt service payments for 2020 and in some cases, such as China, to forgive some outstanding debt, will also help them pay for medical supplies. 

Ramaphosa said the benefits of Africa pooling its needs for supplies through the platform would accelerate their delivery by giving countries ready access to an online marketplace with the click of a button, “as opposed to the onerous and time-consuming process of scouring the globe to procure these medical supplies”.

The platform would also reduce costs by connecting manufacturers and suppliers with governments directly, removing the “middle-man” who “far too often becomes the doorway into which corrupt practices like price inflation and ‘agent management fees’ enter”.

The platform would provide security of supply, achieve economies of scale and provide suppliers with a large and assured market.

“Once a vaccine is available it too will be added to this portal in line with our stated commitment to ensuring there is equitable access to any form of lifesaving medication,” Ramaphosa said. 

At the start of the pandemic African countries were paying as much as $30 for an N95 medical workers’ facemask. The platform had brought this down to about $2 each, with a supply of more than 194 million…

Strive Masiyiwa, the Zimbabwean cellphone entrepreneur, and also a special AU envoy raising global financial support for Africa’s fight against Covid-19, led the team which created the platform. He said Ramaphosa’s mandate to him had been to solve the problem of Africa being at the back of the global queue for scarce supplies and equipment to fight Covid-19.

Shortages of key supplies such as test kits were contributing to a slow response to the crisis in Africa, Masiyiwa said. For example, the average number of tests per one million people in the continent so far was just 1,669, versus more than 173,000 in Iceland, 57,594 in Italy, 44,123 in the US, 37,433 in Singapore 31,592 in the UK and 16,120 in South Korea. And even Africa’s much lower average was considerably boosted by the relatively high rate of testing in South Africa – at 12,523 per million. 

Ramaphosa said the platform was a “silver lining” in the pandemic as it would help lay the foundations of the African Continental Free Trade Area.

The low testing rate was critical as the ability to test widely was the basis for being able to ease lockdowns designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

Before the creation of the platform, a World Health Organisation consortium had procured 10 million diagnostic kits for 16 weeks on a quota basis – or an average of about 46,000 kits per African country per month, Masiyiwa said.

But through the platform, the supply of test kits had risen to well over 30 million a month for the continent. At the start of the pandemic African countries were paying as much as $30 for an N95 medical workers’ facemask. The platform had brought this down to about $2 each, with a supply of more than 194 million, Masiyiwa said. 

He attributed much of the success to the global outreach led by Ramaphosa to countries such as Canada, China, France, the Netherlands, the US and India to support Africa’s fight against the pandemic. And he said he was getting requests from other parts of the world to licence the concept of the platform.

Ramaphosa said the platform was a “silver lining” in the pandemic as it would help lay the foundations of the African Continental Free Trade Area.

Masiyiwa added that the South African firm Invicta (ESG), would be producing 10,000 FDA-approved ventilators cheaply by the end of June for the platform.

“Manufacturing and industrial activity in African countries will be catalysed as governments seek competitively priced goods and services from nearby markets. 

“This platform is extending a lifeline to African small businesses and large industries that have been hard hit by the pandemic… to repurpose their operations, as industries in a number of East African countries have done by converting their businesses to produce personal protective equipment.

“The entrepreneurship and innovation that has sprung up across the continent in response to the pandemic is remarkable.

“There are the scientists in Senegal that developed a Covid-19 rapid test kit that would cost $1 per patient, or the scientists, doctors, engineers and students from an African network of institutions that developed a prototype for a ventilator that can be made using 3D printers.”

Ghana had developed Solar Wash, a solar-powered touch-free water dispenser and Burkina Faso had devised the DiagnoseMe Android application enabling users to quickly detect coronavirus symptoms. 

Masiyiwa added that the South African firm Invicta (ESG), would be producing 10,000 FDA-approved ventilators cheaply by the end of June for the platform.

The platform is powered by the venture and tech firm Janngo on behalf of the African Union’s Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and in partnership with Afreximbank, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and other leading African & international corporations, institutions and foundations. 

“We commit to providing market intelligence on where the manufacturers are, facilitating pooled procurement when financial resources are made available through this initiative, and distributing these products to respective African destinations,” said Dr John Nkengasong, Director of Africa CDC. 

ECA, Afreximbank, the African Union Trade Commission and the AfCFTA secretariat are advocating for the removal of trade tariffs and other restrictions on medical supplies in Africa to ease the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Virgin (Orbit and Galactic) is also supporting the platform. DM

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