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How COVID-19 has disrupted Africa's supply chain

Cai Nebe
August 6, 2020

Poor infrastructure, logistical hurdles and high prices are some of the challenges that have affected Africa's food supply. With border closures and night curfews, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these problems.

Ivory Coast truck drivers | K
Image: A. Duval Smith

In the busy market of Baba Dogo — a town located northeast of Nairobi, Kenya — Irene Kwira sells clothing she imports from China, Uganda and Tanzania.

Kwira's supply chain broke when the coronavirus pandemic hit the world and forced many manufacturing industries to shut down businesses and countries to close borders. 

Read more: Coronavirus set to infect global airlines' fragile health

Kenya took similar measures to limit the spread of the virus. 

"This meant that we could not get our goods easily because they could not reach us," Kwira told DW. "So the returns were low and we would buy goods at a higher price because the demand could not match the supply."

Kenya closed its borders and allowed only essential goods to be imported and transported throughout the country. 

Read more: Africa's varied COVID-19 rates and responses

The government's decision on what counts as essential services also made Kwira's job of selling her stock exponentially harder. "It's difficult to send goods timely to my customers within the country due to the curfew," Kwira said.

Kwira is not the only merchant affected by the pandemic. Shoe seller Nico Manyasia has battled to stay afloat and keep clients happy. "Goods cannot reach the customers in good time," Manyasia said, adding that merchants must wait weeks to get their deliveries.

Medical supplies affected in Ghana

In Tamale, Ghana's northern region, the road leading to the Janjori Kukuo health center is so severely damaged that vehicles often fall into deep potholes. Located in the remote part of the north region of Ghana, the facility is one of many poorly resourced centers, but still serves several communities in the Nanton district. 

Read more: Ghanaians question president's promise of new hospitals

Many rural health centers in Ghana currently lack personal protection equipment (PPE). In an effort to solve the shortages, the government announced that it was partnering with the private sector to fill the gaps. However, there has not been a reliable supply chain to health facilities, specifically to rural areas.

Ghana |  King's Medical Center  | Pregnant women
Medical supplies and emergency services are limited rural areas of Ghana because of poor infrastructureImage: DW/M. Suuk

"If a patient comes here as an emergency case, what are we going to do?" Vincent Ayamga, a nurse on duty, told DW. "We are not even well protected," he said. "We have no PPEs."

Ayamga's colleagues work to reduce infants' fevers without gloves or face masks. That has been their predicament, especially during the pandemic."They came and gave us the protective clothing only once," Nasamu Nimatu said. 

Nimatu and the other health workers could not get supplies from the capital, Accra, because of poor road connections. 

Read more: COVID-19 in Africa shows the need to improve communication

It is a challenge most health centers in rural areas face, but it has become worse, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Regional hospitals and health centers depend on national ambulance services during emergencies.

Research conducted by NORSAAC, a non governmental organization, at 90 health facilities across Northern Ghana in May found that most facilities in the area were not ready to manage suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases due to insufficient logistical infrastructure.

Ghana, Kenya logistic challenges mirrored across Africa

Africa Airlines | Kenya - Kenya Airways Boeing 787
Cargo planes are still in business in Africa but goods have become expensive than before the coronavirus pandemicImage: picture-alliance/M. Mainka

Kobo360, a leading global logistics platform in Africa, has registered over 31,527 deliveries across Africa during the COVID-19 crisis. The importance of their business has been magnified as companies scramble to secure their supply chains.

The company's CEO, Obi Ozor, reckons companies spend 7 to 14% of their revenues on logistics. "It was crazy when these things happened in the first week. Nobody had a clue what to do," Ozor said, referring to chaotic decisions made in various countries in early March, when African nations first registered coronavirus cases.

According to Ozor, trucks transport the majority of goods in Africa. But to deliver cargo to their final destinations, drivers put their lives on the line, as most of them are exposed to the virus.

Then, with more check-points on the road as a result of coronavirus prevention methods, there is an increased risk of corruption. "When the drivers who we've been begging to drive finally go on the road, different authorities extort money from them," Ozor told DW.

Risky business

To avoid risking the health of his employees, Ozor had to reduce the number of his staff transporting cargos across the continent. In regular times, Kobo360 transports minerals and raw material like cement. "We moved the trucks to take care of pharmaceutical supplies." 

Read more: Opinion: COVID-19 will increase HIV and unsafe births for African women

And while COVID-19 has hammered economies, for Ozor, at least, it has forced African governments to modernize, and take start-ups seriously.

"Digitalization has become a centerpiece of what any organization is doing today," he said, adding that the use of technology became mainstream ability for government and startups to improve their service delivery. 

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Maxwell Suuk in Ghana and Andrew Wasike in Kenya contributed to this report.