COVID-19: Africa Road to recovery – Conversation with Ms. Gwendoline ABUNAW

conversation with ABUNAW


Ms. Gwendoline ABUNAW, ECOBANK Cluster Head, CEMAC
Dr. Denis FORETIA, Co-Chair Denis & Lenora FORETIA Foundation

Topic: COVID-19: Africa Road to recovery

Dr. Denis: I am very excited to be hosting this conversation with one of the leading bankers in Africa, Mrs. Gwendoline Abunaw Gwendoline Abunaw is the first female Managing Director of Ecobank Cameroon. Gwen has more than 20 years of experience in the finance and banking sector, has occupied various C-suite positions since 2011 when she was head of a corporate bank in Cameroon, including coverage of six Sub-Saharan African countries in the CEMAC region. Gwen, it’s really a great privilege and honor to have you.

Gwendoline Abunaw: Thank you, Denis. It’s a great pleasure for me to be part of this discussion.

Dr. Denis: So, Gwen, we are more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. There were lockdowns. Things have opened up. There are vaccines and Africa is getting these vaccines right now. From a global view, what is your overall appraisal as to where we are currently in this pandemic in Cameroon and in most Sub-Saharan African countries?

Gwendoline Abunaw: The first thing I would say is that we survived. I think we all remember that at the start of the pandemic, there was a fear that Africa was just going to disappear from the planet because of how we were going to manage the pandemic. I would give that up to maybe faith and the grace of God as well, because we do not yet have statistics as to why or how we’re able to manage and not be overwhelmed by everything as everybody was assuming. But I think it’s also because of the quick reaction and the leadership, in terms of closing our borders. But also because of our youth population with only 3% of people aged over 65. We also have to say that maybe it’s because of our immune systems that have resisted other life-threatening diseases, you know, from Ebola to malaria and the rest. I think there’s still a lot of work to do in terms of putting an end to the pandemic or managing it in a place where we can say we are comfortable and we know the way forward. On the economic side as well, we are trying to find a balance as to how to move ahead, be it the private sector or the public sector. So, I think we are in a stable, but still a wait-and-see position and everybody, be it the government or the private sector is trying to take the necessary baby steps towards recovery and living in our new normal.

Dr. Denis: So, as you mentioned, when you look at the economies of many Sub-Saharan African countries, how they have attempted to deal with this pandemic, where they are currently on the economic side, can you go a little further as to the economic numbers, how it is affecting various parts of the economy and what are some of the measures that you think have really been instrumental in helping us stay afloat?

Gwendoline Abunaw: If you look at the banking sector in particular, you would see that a lot of the companies that we have in our books globally, are still trying to find their feet, there was a slow-down in investment, in capital expenditure because people didn’t have visibility as to what the future was going to hold. Since 2020, we have since slowed down in the facilities that companies normally have at their disposal for use.

  • If you look at the government side, you equally see that the numbers in terms of the tax collection or the custom duty collections have greatly reduced because there’s less investment. There are reduced performance of companies. Therefore the percentage to also pay to the tax authorities is also reduced.
  • If you look at the numbers in terms of foreign transfers, there’s also a great reduction because you know that our countries are very dependent on imports. We import a lot of foods that we consume. So, in terms of foreign currency transfers to pay for the importation of those goods, we have also seen great reduction in terms of volumes of transfers that are being done.
  • In terms of investors coming into the country, to be able to do investment in various sectors like they used to do, we equally saw a reduction in inflows of cash towards investing in the country. The inflows were seen more towards the support that was being given for the COVID-19 measures that the government was putting in place. So, you would see that the numbers have greatly reduced.
  • But when we talk about, numbers also in the financial sector, people always get confused between liquidity and solvency. So at this time, we are also looking at the African countries that are seeking support from the IMF. The IMF has given facilities to countries, particularly those in the CEMAC zone that I am more familiar with. In terms of support, because these countries are so highly dependent on oil as a commodity and oil for their livelihood, the IMF funding has also come in to be able to support and a lot of these countries in the CEMAC zone have adhered to the program that was put in place by IMF to support the various countries through this stage. So in terms of economics that is what I can put on the table for now.

Dr. Denis: You mentioned the IMF and some of the work it has done to help stabilize some of these countries. I don’t know if this is already in practice yet, but there is the new, special drawing rights that the IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva was open to extending for African countries. What can you tell us about that and the potential support to many of these African countries and what it means?

Gwendoline Abunaw: Okay. I’ll put it in very simple terms because for this discussion, we want everybody to be able to understand simply what we’re talking about. When you talk about the IMF programs, you know, the IMF looks at governments and gives them support to see how they can organize themselves.  For instance, how can they organize their economies to function better? And IMF looks at public spending. It looks at

  • the type of investments that are being done in the country.
  • the types of bilateral loans that governments are taking from the financial sector
  • the type of support that countries are getting from foreign states.
  • the type of tax and physical measures that are placed in the countries. And when you have a situation where a country or the whole continent is going through, a pandemic such as COVID-19 is just coming to add to the other ills that the countries have been facing.

If you take the case of Cameroon, we have been dealing with Boko Haram threats for quite some time, we have been dealing with the Anglophone crisis for quite some time. We have been dealing with the drop in oil prices for quite some time. So COVID-19 is just coming to add to the existing problems and the existing solutions and recommendations that IMF has been discussing or working on with the governments in the CEMAC zone. So these measures help to sort of redress what is going wrong to help the government switch to a better path to help the economies of the country. If you looked in the beginning, countries like Congo Brazzaville, were a bit hesitant to sign while Cameroon and Tchad were quicker but now you have most of them signed up on the IMF program. This helps with making sure that internal debt is being paid because when this happens, it means that the small and medium size enterprise sector is also able to thrive. It helps the government to focus spending on key infrastructure areas that we need, be it roads, power supplies or even telecoms. It helps to manage the fiscal policies that the government is putting in place because you want companies to be able to thrive and live as well as pay their dues to the government. The IMF programs are very important for countries like us because it’s sort of a monitoring mechanism. It adds to put everybody in line, so to speak, and it helps us to make sure that our countries can develop in the right manner and the right speed that we expect. So, I think we need more of that support. We are going to actually see more of that support as the countries recover or slowly come out of this COVID 19.

Dr. Denis: You mentioned something that is very dear to us at Nkafu and at the foundation, which is, small and medium-sized enterprises and how some of the financial or fiscal policies in the country and IMF support could create space for SMEs to thrive. You know that more than 90% of African businesses are small businesses and they have lots of issues. What is your view on that and how have you all in the banking and finance sector seen the SME sector during this period? Also, what are some of the measures that are being put in place for the SME sector?

Gwendoline Abunaw: You know, when we talk about COVID-19, we always see the bad side, but on the flip side, with all due respect to those or all of us, who have lost loved ones during this period, I think the pandemic has given the SMEs, I will call it a different angle on how to go further. What do I mean by this? There were some SMEs that had reached like the peak of what they could do or the peak of their businesses, but because of the pandemic, they had new business opportunities to do more. The pandemic created a creative space for innovation. The other issue that we noticed, or the other positive thing that we saw was that the government also reached out to SMEs to help give tax release relief to some of them. For instance, if you were in a sector like tourism, or you were in the travel business, or you were in the transport sector, there were relief measures that were given. Another step was the regulation. The regulator of the financial institutions, came up with guidelines to say, if you have companies particularly SMEs that are in particular sectors, there’s a certain treatment that you have to afford to them at that moment to enable them cross over their difficulties. Particularly for us at Ecobank, we did several things to support SMEs through this period. One of the measures that we did was to launch a program called “elevate”. Although elevate was specific for women in small and medium sized businesses or entrepreneurs,

it was also to give them advisory services and special conditions to be able them start or grow their businesses during this period and going forward. The second thing we did was to provide a digital software for small and medium size enterprises called “omni light” to enable them better manage their businesses in a digital manner during this period, but also going onwards. So, the COVID 19 pandemic, although it’s a serious crisis that impacted the economies, I believe that it gave SMEs the opportunity to thrive during this period.

Dr. Denis: From your standpoint, there is a lot of data out there from other countries regarding how women have been affected during the pandemic. How do you see the policy of supporting women, especially women entrepreneurs on a global scale and has there been other efforts outside of what specific banks have done that have been able to give more opportunities to women as far as recovery is concerned?

Gwendoline Abunaw: The business sector in Africa is very informal. And most of the small businesses are run by women. The markets, trade, small businesses on the streets, hair dressing, selling mobile data and the rest, it is all women. Women are at the center of our businesses. Particularly during this period of COVID-19, if you take the case of our countries where there were curfews or lockdowns, the greatest impact was felt at the level of small businesses. From the woman frying, what we call locally, puff-puff, to the woman roasting fish on the streets, they were the ones who were most impacted. If you look at the role that women play in their homes as a support system to lay the foundation or the base for their families to thrive, you can only imagine the impact that this period had on them. We also saw that on the social side, there were increased cases of abuse. There were increased cases of young girls getting pregnant. And this all has an effect on our society. The good thing is that for countries like ours, in Cameroon, we didn’t get to the period of complete lockdown. And that is what enabled our countries to survive. But for us also, there was a lot of education that had to be done for women to see how they could continue to do other informal businesses, but more on a digital base. We also had to have discussions around financial inclusion because it’s, during times like this, that you see the importance of financial inclusion. People being able to send and receive money became even more critical and more necessary during this period. So, “elevate” as a program came as an answer to how do you support a woman, not only in giving them access to a bank account or giving them access to financing, but also educated them on how to move from the informal to the formal sector. And I think this conversation has to continue because if you look at AfCFTA, it aims to grow informal businesses and make Africa one big and strong market that can face their competition on the global scale. And this would have women at the center of it because as I said, women constitute a big chunk of the informal trade in Africa.

Dr. Denis: You just talked about AfCFTA, the African continental free trade area agreement whose launch was pushed back due to the pandemic, but thankfully, in January of this year, it was effectively put in place. It is obviously a very good opportunity for Africans but from your vantage point, especially looking at the financial transactions that are needed for inter-country trade to be effective, what are some of the hurdles you see regarding AfCFTA?

Gwendoline Abunaw: That is a fantastic question. And I think it’s something that we need to all really look at. AfCFTA to me is really crucial for economic growth, job creation and making Africa a meaningful player in international trade. I think, the greatest hurdle will be to finalize and actually put the framework in place for AfCFTA to become a reality. The next thing is that we have to be able to create the infrastructure for connectivity. When we talk about free movement of people, free movement of goods, we need infrastructure. And one of the impediments that most countries have on the continent is infrastructure. The other items that we have to look at is to actually put in place the protocol on free movement of persons and goods, because it is there on paper, since 2018. But is it enforceable? I don’t think so.  As a traveler on the continent, there is always that problem of visas and entry. Another thing is that leaders have to make it a domestic policy. For it to work, we have to say, okay, this is the cost, this is how we are going to do it and this is what needs to be on the table to make it happen. So, that interrelation between both public and private parties has to exist, you know? Also, we have to be open to industrialization and liberalization. A lot of us on the continent rely on imported goods and that’s a block. I think these are the items that are going to impede the functioning of the Free Trade Area and if the African countries that are involved can work together to put these hurdles aside and agree on the best way to go forward, it would be beneficial to all of us on the continent.

Dr. Denis: Just to push a little bit on this, do you see any political will from across the continent? Is there a concerted effort from economic operators to make sure that where leaders are lagging in some of the political commitments that have been made, economic stakeholders can actually push to ensure the applicability of AfCFTA?

Gwendoline Abunaw: You have just said the right word, political will. I think the implementation of AfCFTA relies fully on political will, because if you look at the measures and the policies that are being listed out, it has to be driven by governments, unfortunately. But the good thing, or the positive thing is, when I look at the fact that it took three years to get everything kick-started, which is already a plus in our African standards because we know that we have had other things like this in the past that took ten, twenty years for countries to sign. So I look at that one aspect positively and it gives me the sign that there is political will from the nations on the continent. Now the key problem will be implementation. Yes, COVID-19 stopped us or slowed us down. But now that we’re seeing that it is not going away, it’s just taking a different shape and size, what we have to do is go back on the table to say, okay, how do we start this thing? How do we put it in place? And that is where it has to be a national policy. There has to be a policy or a committee or an initiative to say, how do we implement these items in the country? And that would then have the government invite the private sector in to say, look, we need you guys to be in this discussion, we need you guys to be in this dance because if you look at it, it’s very beneficial to any economic player. If we are able to put in place the trade policy, you already have the financial institutions who have good products and services that are serving the country. But now imagine it being rolled across freely inside the African continent. We are already working on financial inclusion measures, which is very key to drive the trade goals because you need to have everybody, be it in the towns or in the villages connected to some kind of financial platform. There needs to be partnership between financial institution, the telecoms companies, as well as the fintechs and the start-ups because you have to integrate the systems. So I think that if the political will exist and there’s a plan for implementation, there’s a call for others in the private sector to come and join with the government to be able to roll out the agenda. It can only be positive things coming out of this initiative.

Dr. Denis: Yes, I do agree fully. It could only be positive. Most of the time when I’m asked to explain the issues regarding AfCFTA, I always say if you look at the US and Canada, Canada aligns itself fully with the US economy. They were part of the UK, but they don’t drive on the wrong side of the road. They drive on the right side to align with the US economy and the US economy is much bigger. When I talk about it and I think of Cameroon, I say Cameroon needs to align with Nigeria. If you have African continental free trade, you stop dealing with 25 million people in Cameroon and deal with 200 million in Nigeria and it opens things up a lot more. Now Gwen, it is usually said that necessity is the driver of innovation. And obviously there have been many digital innovations, but from an economic angle, what are some of the innovations that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought that may not be easily visible to us?

Gwendoline Abunaw: Okay. Before I jump to what’s the innovation that the financial sector and more pointedly Ecobank brought, let me include this because we’re talking to a larger crowd.

  • Before I was talking about the SMEs and the window of opportunity that COVID-19 brought, look at the number of people who have jobs, either from making masks or selling them.
  • Secondly, look at the local industries that thrived because of the production of gel. Gel was very expensive and everybody was going for the important brands, but quickly we saw production units coming up to produce cheaper gels.
  • If you look at the number of water points that we had along the roads, in front of houses and what have you, this also opened up a different dimension and opportunity for people.
  • If you look at the FinTech, areas where we had people coming up with all sorts of apps for deliveries, we had people coming up with drones for deliveries and pickups. We had so many ideas coming in just because there was a problem that was created.

Now, if I go back to the banking sector, we have a culture in our countries of people wanting to physically come to the bank to just ask for their balance, to ask for a statement, to deposit money, to pay a bill, but because of the COVID pandemic and just the fear that they had of coming out,

  • we had a lot more people requesting cuts.
  • we had a lot more people onboarding on our mobile app, the ecobank mobile app, because with your app, you could check your balance. You could do transfers, you could connect to your mobile money account, and you could pay your utilities just from your phone sitting anywhere that you were.
  • Ecobank during this period also launched the ATM that could collect cash. So you could do your customer visits through the ATM and you saw increased partnerships between financial institutions and telecoms companies. Because I believe in that ecosystem, we realize that we have to be interconnected for us to be able to achieve the financial inclusion goals that we have as individual companies and the government. There has to be that interrelation. You also saw the regulator and the central bank stepping in to work on policy and to approve policies to fast track or to facilitate digitalization. I believe that from the COVID-19 pandemic and the outcome of it, or the lessons learned, we are going to see more innovation. We are going to see more entrepreneurs coming up. We are going to see more startups and I’m happy to know that companies like us are already doing programs to support startups. And this should continue because the future is Africa, as we all know. It’s not just a statement, it’s actually a reality. And I think COVID 19 has come to make that even more obvious.

Dr. Denis: You have talked a lot about digital inclusion. What efforts and what adaptations did Ecobank make to include, especially poor African and Cameroonian business women, locally known as bayam-sellam given the current high cost of running a current account? What does Ecobank have to offer as innovative credit facilities to address the needs of SMEs? Can you also talk on the benefits of those businesses becoming formal in Cameroon?

Gwendoline Abunaw: Yes, thank you for the questions. I think they’re very good questions. And they are very important, particularly in economies like ours. I liked the question on “buyam-sellams” (petty business owners) because when we launched the ELLEVATE program earlier on this year, we actually invited the presidents of the various “Buyam-sellam” (petty business owners) associations in both Douala and Yaoundé and they were very happy to have been invited because they noted that most of the time when these programs are being launched for women entrepreneurs “buyam-sellams” (petty business owners) are always left out of the invite. But the question you asked is so pertinent because like I said, in my earlier words, our economies, our business economies in Africa are largely run by women. And in the informal sectors, the people selling in the markets are all women. So Ecobank through the ELLEVATE program are catering to all levels of women from “buyam-sellams” (petty business owners) to “call-boxers” (communication credit/airtime vendors), to hairdressers, to make up artists, we are catering to every level of women who are doing business or women who are doing with focus on activities for women. And what we are putting as a solution is to say, we don’t want you to come and have a normal current account because your business is specific. So we are giving special conditions on the current accounts that you have to open. The second point is that we know that you need financing, but your financing might not be at the scale that we usually give for a typical SME business. So we are offering financing solutions to meet the different layers of businesses that women are in. And this is not just something new. Actually, we always come up with a product to meet the needs of a particular target. We had opened a SWAT account that was tailored for university students because we know that they are not working but receive money from their parents. So this was launched almost two or three years ago and elevate is just another innovation to address the needs of women. I hope that I’ve answered the question about the “buyam-sellams” (petty business owners), now, informal sector. What is the benefit of moving from informal to formal? This is a fantastic question. And I’m so happy that you asked. You know, when people do informal businesses or keep their businesses informal, it is because maybe they don’t want to pay tax or rent. They don’t want people to know how much they’re making and in a way, depending on what side you’re sitting on, you might think this is a positive thing to do, but I’m going to go specifically as to why it’s important for you to have a formal bank account. First of all, when you have a bank account, the bank is able to assess the flows that you are earning from your business. And why is this important? This is important because if you have maybe somebody who is selling what we call “friperie”, you know, second hand dresses, why should you have a formal account? If I don’t know how much you’re selling and you come to me to ask for 50 million to be able to buy your next consignment, I cannot give you because you have no proof, no trace to show me that you can be able to use 50 million and actually have a turn on your investment. Secondly, if you don’t have a track record of what you’re able to do, you cannot grow because everything that you’d be telling us will be verbal. There’ll be no documentation anywhere of what you have done in the past. Certainly you will not be able to benefit from any tax relief. I just mentioned that during this period, the government or the banking sector were giving relief to certain companies based on the numbers and statistics that we had in our books, so we were able to say, oh, if you’re in the tourism sector, if you’re in the transport sector, this is what you can benefit as relief because of what is going on. If you’re informal, we don’t have this data. So it is very important for somebody with forward-thinking who wants to grow their business to have their informal business converted to something formal. And the basis is to have an account. And now I can speak for Ecobank. We have packages for each type of business to be able to serve the customer and be able to fit the purpose which you want to achieve. Now, you also mentioned a third question about innovative credit facilities. You are at the right place, I would say with Ecobank, because what we do is try to cater or create products that match small businesses that are still growing. What do I mean by that? You know that small businesses most of the time when they start, they don’t really have financial statements. And normally when you go to a bank, the first thing they ask you is where is your financial statement? Where is your business plan? You know, what is your cash flow projections? What is your source of guarantee? And obviously when people start having this question, they quietly carry their bags and say, oh, this is the wrong place for me. But what do we do at Ecobank? We have what we call product programs because we know that a lot of the small businesses don’t yet have all of these normal or traditional documents that they need for financing. So I’ll give an example of a product program. You might be an entrepreneur who has just gotten your first contract to supply paper to a company like ENEO, for example or MTN. So, with that contract, we are able to give you financing in advance with some internal check-ins that we do with the company that has given you the contract to make sure that it is actually authentic and valid. So we are able to give you an advance for you to be able to, you know, get the goods that you need to be able to supply the company. And when you receive payment, you’ll be able to reimburse the bank. And this right here is another reason why you have to formalize your business, because if you don’t formalize your business and you don’t have a bank account, you cannot benefit from such innovative credit facilities. So I will stop here for now and maybe take the next set of questions and if possible, elaborate wherever it’s needed.

Dr. Denis: Thank you very much for that. And I think for us at the foundation and at the Nkafu Policy Institute, helping informal businesses transition to formal businesses, is part of or Small Business and Entrepreneurship program (SBEC). It is so central, there is just no way you can really grow without being in the formal sector. Now Gwen, how is the financial health of banks in Sub-Saharan Africa. What can you tell us about that?

Gwendoline Abunaw: Yes. That’s a very good question, but I would first focus on Cameroon because it’s important for you to understand the banking sector in Cameroon because a lot of this information, what is being cited here is when you’re talking about the global economy. You know, we’re talking about the global economies going through a recession and the rest, but you have to put it in context. In Cameroon, we have fifteen banks and we have five banks that actually make up 78% of the banking sector in terms of deposits and in terms of loans. And those five banks, you have Société Générale, Afriland, BICEC, Ecobank and Antijaariwafa. And those five banks, you know, have the bulk of the deposits and the credits in the market. So when you look at the global health of financial institutions in Cameroon, I think it is stable in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. I think maybe what the participant was referring to which is something I mentioned in the beginning is that during the pandemic, people started mixing up liquidity with solvency. Liquidity is the cash that banks have in the market. In the CEMAC zone, we are known to be very liquid in terms of the financial sector, Solvency is something different. It is the ability to be able to repair facilities that you may have. And we don’t have that problem in the financial sector, in Cameroon because it’s liquid. And during this pandemic, the central bank took measures to make sure that banks continued being very liquid by offering also facilities to banks that may have had a liquidity situation. But what we noticed from the statistics is that the bulk of liquidity that was made available to banks by the central bank was not utilized, which is a very positive sign, showing that banks in the CEMAC zone have sufficient liquidity. Another measure that you’ll see is that there were lots of government securities being traded in this zone and also being sold in the secondary market. So they was a primary market that was very active with the banks itself, but also a secondary market space where banks were selling to individuals and companies; insurance companies, and all the rest, which is a very positive sign of the financial health of the financial institutions. Another reason why there was so much liquidity was what I said in the beginning, the fact that a lot of multinationals and other medium-sized companies were not taking or using facilities like they used to because they were waiting to see the outlook of what was going to happen in the economy, based on the pandemic that came to add to the already existing ills that we had; Boko Haram, Anglophone crisis, political instability in some of the countries and what have you. So, the participants should retain that the financial sector in Cameroon, and I would dare to say in the CEMAC zone is stable. If you want to be sure about that, you should use the standard and pause rating agency and the Moody’s agencies which I believe during this period have not downgraded the rating of the countries in this zone.

Dr. Denis: Now, I know Ecobank is one of the banks in Cameroon with activities geared towards corporate social responsibility (CSR). Can you talk about this? Also, you mentioned that COVID-19 has simply added another layer to the challenges already faced by many African governments such as with regards to peace and security. In your view, what are the prospects of the African continental free trade area agreement in improving peace and security on the continent?

Gwendoline Abunaw: Thanks for these. Yes, in fact, we did donate equipment and other items that could help in the fight against COVID-19 to hospitals in Cameroon and as far as that is concerned, for us, it is actually part of our mission and vision. We actually believe that if we are going to participate in the economic development of Africa, we have to make sure that the citizens are healthy. Because if you have people who are not healthy, you cannot really be running any institution because you have no people to come and actually utilize the facilities. So for us, it goes hand in hand. Now, in terms of what the government is doing, unfortunately, I don’t have that type of information because I don’t work in the government. But what does exist is the social security company, CNPS as most people know, that I believe would also be adjusting itself like most African countries are doing to make sure that in the future, right to the basic layer, you know, right to the last layer of their populations are covered by some scheme, because COVID-19 came to expose us in that sense, to show that not everybody has the access to the proper social security schemes that are needed in countries such as ours. So I will, after this session, make sure that I get my teams to check what we have from the government to be able to put it in the live chat so that you have the information. The next question was on peace and security measures. I think that if you look at the whole structure of AfCFTA, apart from trade, peace and security, for me, is a must for anything to function, because, imagine trying to put in place these trade goals and all of these initiatives in countries that are in war or that have security issues, how will investors come? Investors will not come to countries where there’s instability. Nobody wants to put their money where they’re not sure it’s going to work. So for me, peace and security, as I’ve seen in the documentation of AfCFTA is one of the key items on the agenda. They are calling on each of the member states to make sure that they take the necessary measures to ensure there’s peace, diplomacy and democracy continues to function smoothly and security. That’s why I think in our case, there’s a lot of talk about dialogue and trying to resolve the Anglophone crisis because it is a major impediment for the growth and development of the economy. I will go further and I would encourage you to read on it, because there’s lots of data on this out there. The fact is we are going to see post-COVID, a lot of foreign countries, be it European countries, Americans, China, are all going to change their geopolitical strategy in favor of support for Africa. And that support is going to come from trying to give debt forgiveness solutions to many African countries. It’s going to come as we are already seeing from the vaccines. If you look at the COVAX agreement, which is to make sure that everybody has access to vaccines, it is going to be a tool that a lot of the foreign countries will use to reach out a hand to Africa, because like I said, Africa is the future. You’re going to see the Americans, you know, the Biden-Paris government have a very clear and focused strategy on Africa because they’ll want to try to gain steps ahead and push China a bit backwards because China has sort of put itself very forward in terms of support to Africa. So peace and security is going to be a major player or a major element in AfCFTA’s strategy, because if we don’t have peace and security on the African continent it’s going to inhibit investors. And it’s also going to inhibit us, being able to throw out our trade or be at par with global economies in terms of trade developments.

Dr. Denis: I appreciate that. Let me get your thoughts on the future of work and how the post COVID economy could look like.

Gwendoline Abunaw: Regarding the future, it can’t be the same. It’s not going to be the same. We have been able to work successfully by doing both remote working and in person working. We have been able to function without travel. I used to travel twice each month for as long as I could remember for different work engagements but I haven’t traveled since February of last year. And I’ve been able to still participate in webinars. I’ve been able to do trainings. I’ve been able to be guest speaker. I’ve been able to get my app, my board meetings done. We have been able to hold a general assembly and the list goes on. A lot of institutions have developed their platforms. Most people are on teams. You have zoom, you have so many platforms to be able to communicate with your colleagues all over the world. We have been able to educate our staff on work-life balance. I think a lot of us, myself included, I’ll raise my hand because I’m a mom and I’m a wife, but I’ve been able to manage my kids, my grandkids in the U S and the little one I have at home and even in a better way than I used to do, because I’ve had time to really balance myself out. And I believe that even people’s mental health has improved because it’s been stressful, but it’s been a different kind of stress. I think all of us have reassessed our priorities because of that almost palpable nearness of I could die, you know, any second because of COVID and that is how work should be. I believe that we should look more at how efficient we can be, not where we are sitting, how efficient can the people that work for you be no matter where they are and what tools can you give them to be able to do their jobs efficiently and comfortably, no matter where they are sitting. And that is where the digital technologies come in. We all have to invest in digital technologies. We have to invest to be able to serve our plans. We have to be invest to be able to give our staff the ability to do their work. And we have to transform even the way we work. Not all modes, we all work full time. Can we not do part time? Can we not do digital sales agents more? Can we not have call centers that are located in remote areas? We all have to rethink, you know, the future of work. And I think what we have seen this last year is only the beginning. We are going to have more innovations and more inventive ways of doing work. And I, in particular, I’m actually quite excited because I think that we can be more efficient in how we work and more productive if we just have an open mind.

Dr. Denis: Well, Gwen, I think this has been an extremely riveting conversation. Let me give you an opportunity to have some concluding remarks regarding where you sit and how you see things going forward from here.

Gwendoline Abunaw: Thank you very much. I’ve had a very good time talking with you. It’s been a wonderful conversation and I loved the questions that we got from the participants. I think, and I always keep repeating it, Africa is the future but it needs all of us, particularly those of us who are on the continent and those of us who are Africans to be part of the conversation. We need to take up whatever angle or whatever part of the stick that we think we can positively contribute to and come and join the conversation. I’m happy to work for an institution like Ecobank because their mission is Africa. They say, Africa is our objective. You know, how we can impact the people in the communities in which we operate and how can we actually groom Africans to know that they can achieve whatever it is that they set themselves up for. And we continue to innovate and develop products and services that fit the purpose of those who live in these communities. What we need here is different from what somebody might need in New York. So it’s important to provide products that fit the needs of the communities in which we operate. And I think that AfCFTA is really something that if it can be put in place, it will transform Africa. But like I said, we need the political will. And we need also the private sector to join that conversation so we move from talk to concrete actions. So, Denis please, continue having such conversations, continue coming up with topics like these, giving us these platforms to be able to share views particularly in very simple terms so that everybody can understand, because sometimes people don’t have an opinion because the conversation is way above their head. But if we can have simple conversations like these, talk about, current subjects and how they affect the population, I think it makes a huge difference. I wish you all the best at the Nkafu policy Institute and I look forward to having such conversations with you again in the future. Thank you very much for having me.

Dr. Denis: Thank you, Gwen, the pleasure is ours.

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Denis Foretia, surgeon and entrepreneur, is the Co-Chair of the Denis & Lenora Foretia Foundation and Executive Chairman of the Nkafu Policy Institute


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