How a Healthy Africa Can Spur Economic Growth
‘An ambitious effort between business, non-profits, and government is underway to reshape the continent’
By Aliko Dangote
We have a saying here: Africa’s problems are Africa’s opportunities. That is what the stubborn optimists like myself believe. And today, there is no greater opportunity than improving health care throughout the continent.
Africa is home to one of the fastest growing populations on the planet, and is the youngest region, with 60 percent of the population under the age of 24. So it should make up a big portion of the workforce of the future. I say should, because Africa is home to some of the poorest populations anywhere with a disproportionately high disease burden. If we can raise the quality of life, however, we’ll prompt far-reaching solutions: Healthier populations, after all, enable healthier economies. Everyone from students to employees to entrepreneurs would be more productive, more creative and more enterprising.
Imagine the economic ripple effect across the globe of providing accessible and affordable care to Africa’s 1.3 billion workers (UN 2035 estimate) and to its $1.5 trillion p.a. consumer market, estimated to be $2 trillion by 2025. Typically, we’re known for our natural resources— finite minerals worth trillions of dollars—but our most valuable asset should be our human capital.
The time is now for a new era of cooperation in Africa that will position our people, our communities and our businesses for success, now and in the future. We must improve the quality and access to health care throughout Africa in a meaningful way.
African businesses, in particular, need to play a greater role. The current public-private health-care partnerships fall short, focusing disproportionately on a small number of countries (those with high-growth markets); 10 out of Africa’s 54 countries account for half of the current partnerships. They’re also not aligned with the countries’ most pressing problems, where the disease burden is crippling. And they’re not broad enough. Given Africa’s systemic deficiencies, health-care solutions require a holistic approach that also addresses poor infrastructure, malnutrition and the lack of clean water.
Recent research driven by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), GBCHealth and Aliko Dangote Foundation reveals the extent of the problem—and the opportunity at hand. In Africa, governments typically control the delivery of health care, but governments alone aren’t doing enough. On average, countries here devote just six percent of their GDP to health care. In the US and OECD countries, the percentage is much higher.
It is not only a moral imperative for African business to get more involved, but it is also beneficial for them to do so. Inadequate health care is a distressing aspect of daily life in Africa, one that disrupts and distracts, creating a pervasive sense of vulnerability, not just for your own well-being but for that of your children and parents, your friends and neighbors, associates and markets. A healthier population reduces absenteeism at work. It allows employees to keep learning, expanding their skills to adapt to new technologies. In Africa, productivity has risen just 1.4 percent over the last eight years, despite new digital tools that are boosting productivity throughout the world. We are not keeping up.
Businesses are no doubt wary of getting mired in a problem of such scale and complexity. Progress will take time, but I know the mountain can be moved. Just look at Nigeria, where under the umbrella of the Private Sector Health Alliance of Nigeria a network of dozens of local companies have demonstrated how to improve health in workplaces and local communities. Innovation has been a key component. Member companies have funded startups, conducted hackathons and created what I am convinced is one of the most advanced platforms for fostering entrepreneurial activity in the health space in sub-Saharan Africa. This sort of platform facilitates both short and long-term change encouraging large and small businesses to share best practices to create healthier workplaces and communities while simultaneously promoting complementary policies by government. We need to replicate this at a pan-African level.
Nigeria, which is on pace to become the third-most populous country in the world by 2050, can be a blueprint for the continent. To tackle problems of this magnitude, you have to be bold. You have to believe unfailingly in transformation. And I’ve seen it here firsthand. A decade ago, Africa’s poor telecom infrastructure inhibited economic growth, but we’ve since leapfrogged other markets by embracing mobile telephony. With nearly a billion mobile phone users, the telecommunications sector is approaching 10 percent of GDP.
Investing in health will pay off as well. According to the World Health Organization, spending around $30 more per person on the continent to improve well-being should generate $100 billion in economic gains five years later.
As a businessman, I am motivated by the potential returns. But as an African and as a human being, I know the value of improved health is even greater. We’re talking about saving and extending lives. Preventing a baby in Angola, which has Africa’s highest infant mortality, from dying in her mother’s arms. Giving a grandfather in Uganda, which has Africa’s highest rate of malaria, 20 or 30 more years with his family.
The opportunities here are endless. As another saying, the one framed on my desk, reminds me, “Nothing is impossible”.
It’s not a decoration, mind you. I believe it and live by it.
*Aliko Dangote is the president and CEO of the Dangote Group and chairman of the Aliko Dangote Foundation