Afropean Voices during Covid-19: Not letting a crisis go to waste

Jerry CHEAMBE is a Cameroonian born tech entrepreneur who lives in Berlin and has a strong interest in FinTech and a passion for business opportunities in Africa, the continent he believes holds the largest business opportunities for the next two decades. He is a pan-Africanist at heart and a believer in building the Africa we dream about.

COVID-19 has been with us for over a year now, and it has dramatically affected my life as an entrepreneur. At the end of 2019, we made the strategic decision to open a subsidiary of our FinTech company, Maviance PLC, in France to increase our ability to serve more African markets. In February 2020, I planned a trip to France to perform the necessary administrative procedures to set it up. However, the onset of the global pandemic, a process that was supposed to be completed within 2 weeks could not be completed for 36 weeks. As an entrepreneur based in Europe and doing business across Africa, COVID-19 has brought about changes in the way we do business: traveling, hiring and retaining employees, networking and work-life balance have been significantly altered.

Before COVID-19, I travelled relatively frequently for business both within Europe and Africa. Nowadays, the cost-benefit analysis of traveling has been significantly tilted against traveling. Apart from higher air ticket prices and pre and post-travel testing, additional non-financial costs have increased significantly. These include the time spent planning and taking COVID-19 tests, the time spent applying for special permissions (laissez-passé) to enter certain countries, and the opportunity costs of self-quarantine (up to two weeks) upon return. Booking a multi-stop business trip in different countries is quasi-impossible if one has to consider the 48 to 72 hours pre-travel test windows. More significant are also the emotional costs to family and friends, such as the potential travel restrictions and risks of getting the disease and being able to access the necessary treatment or finding yourself stuck in a country if your COVID-19 test is positive. I remember re-assuring my daughter multiple times before traveling to Dakar that I would be safe and free from COVID-19, even though I could not completely push aside such an eventuality and considering that we had just lost a friend to COVID-19 after he returned from a business trip to Cameroon.

Hiring and integrating newly hired employees into our company culture is challenging too. While working from home brings in a lot of advantages – most of which I personally would not be prepared to give up after the pandemic — it makes it extremely challenging for companies to build a communal culture amongst employees, especially new ones. The small things that add up to create a sense of togetherness, creating bonds and shaping the company’s culture like meeting face-to-face, informal coffee, cigarette or lunch breaks, and team events are not possible. Hence creating bonds in the good times to weather the storms during challenging work situations is not possible, and makes it especially hard to integrate and retain new hires.

Networking during the pandemic is incredibly arduous, especially as you cannot use non-formal settings to establish rapport necessary to facilitate deal-making. The non-measurable aspects of an appealing environment, soft background music with faint sounds of laughter or a clacking sound of ice blocks in a glass of gin cannot be replicated through Zoom calls. These latter, in my opinion, tend to lead to short-term transactional rather than relational and longer-term deal making.

But all is not negative. Working from home has significantly increased my work-life balance, cut-off commute times massively and, as this was a global phenomenon, it has compressed geographical space and thus presented us with long term strategic opportunities with low-income and talent-rich economies in Africa. The lesson is that, long-term, jobs that do not require specific domain or customer facing knowledge could potentially be done from anywhere and hence can migrate to countries with cheaper labour costs and a larger talent pool. In the Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) space, this is USD 1 trillion opportunity for African talent, at a time where the costs in other offshore locations like India and near-shore locations like eastern Europe are increasing.

As the saying goes “never let a good crisis go to waste”, for in every crisis, there is an opportunity to disrupt the status-quo and to expand the pie as there is a re-distribution of income occurs. I believe that it is our common challenge as entrepreneurs in our respective fields to identify the business opportunities and to chart the waters in a post-covid 19 world.

This perspective is included in the upcoming Collateral Benefits Perspective Paper IV: Voices of the African Diaspora, a collaboration beteeen Collateral Benefits , Fundación Manos Visibles and Afrøpean.

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