COVID-19: Welcome to the future!

Simple things that Changed Lives
 The COVID-19 Pandemic is a major disruption of the current world system, a milestone of sorts in human history. Its strike was sudden, extreme, and rapid. The world had not experienced such a pandemic before, neither was it prepared for such an enemy for which there was no known weapon to fight back.

As the shock is now easing, thinkers have racked their brains for lessons learned. One of these lessons is that the world is in flux and that we must re-imagine our world anew.  We choose to focus on the bright spots.

A mask: Could become the lifeline
 for the local textile sector.

Africa could soon be looking to Kenya to supply ventilators and other medical supplies because they are cheap and suitable for African conditions.

Epidemiologists were suddenly thrown into the limelight, with everyone looking up to them for answers. The ensuing confusion saw the world thrust into lockdown as a policy measure to contain the pandemic. This was an economic and social disaster: jobs suddenly lost, health infrastructure almost overrun by rapid infections, cemeteries overrun by deaths caused by the pandemic, overworked frontline workers, supply chains disrupted amid growing demand, the works.

Every cloud has a silver lining, so the old adage goes. That is true of the disruption caused by the corona virus pandemic.  It has bestowed unintended benefits and opened up opportunities unforeseen, pre-corona.  These range from laying bare bad habits to innovations and change in attitudes towards local manufactures. The sum result of these changes is a healthy population, new industries, forex savings, and new jobs.

 For instance, in health, adherence to health protocols and lockdowns imposed to contain the pandemic has reduced the incidence of diseases caused by poor hygiene, pollution, and entertainment.  These form nearly 49 percent of all outpatient cases recorded in Kenyan hospitals. Professionals in the medical field say that this the reason hospitals are recording fewer visits.

Road accidents caused by drunken driving and stress have declined because of the curfew.  So far, COVId-19 has in four months, killed fewer people than road accidents kill in a month.

The rapid digitalization of work processes due to movement restrictions have brought savings to both employers and employees. Teleworking is far more efficient than physical one-on-one contacts, experts say. A recent survey by the IMF on Africa found that firms that exploited the digital age to remain afloat increased their sales by 300 percent.  Their conclusion, remote work is here to stay.

 Video conferencing is efficient and cheap bringing to employers and employees unexpected savings. Those working from home have discovered unexpected savings on transport costs and food. Employers have discovered that they can save on costs related to people working from offices. Video conferencing has proven as efficient as physical conferences but way cheaper.

The pandemic suddenly shut down supply chains leaving a yawning gap.  Medical supplies particularly were hard hit as demand suddenly shot up amid lockdown- induced bottlenecks. Decision-makers began to look inward for homemade solutions, opening unforeseen opportunities for local talent.

 In Africa, the search for homemade solutions is placing Kenya, Ghana and Uganda in the world map as leading innovators.   The rapid growth in demand for medical supplies amid biting shortages paved the way for the local cottage industry to fill the gap. Cottage industries, such as KICOTEC in Kitui, began to make face masks for the nation. Other textile manufacturers followed suit making masks and PPEs for the medical personnel and sanitizers for the public.

Universities too joined the fray as Kenyatta University’s Engineering and Medical students  teamed up to design a ventilator which is being fast-tracked to help meet the local demand. Reports have it that counties have already ordered 500 ventilators from the University.

The local ventilators have more advantages over the imported one:  They cost a quarter of the price of the imported one (US$6,000 compared to $20-25,000); they recycle the oxygen in the atmosphere and does not need oxygen tanks and; they can run on battery for up to four hours. They are thus is quite suited for the local conditions.

According to the project leaders, the country can produce 200 ventilators per week meaning the sky is the limit for these inventors.  Apart from the ventilators, reports say, other students are working on a prototype to produce the swabs needed to test for COVID-19.

 Self-sufficiency came too soon. Depending on how long it takes before a vaccine is found, demand for these machines and other medical supplies, could keep some factories in full capacity production mode for some time, creating jobs for more than just the innovators.

 And governments, seeking homemade solutions, are taking note. The government of Kenya for instance recently ordered 500 hospital beds from local informal sector artisans. This was pioneered by the Machakos county government, which, in May, contracted local artisans to produce hospital beds.  The country needs an additional 30,000 hospital beds and this could motivate more artisans to innovate to meet the demand.

Self-sufficiency, say experts, is one of the inadvertent benefits of the pandemic. Disruption of supply chains could be the constant feature of the 21st Century, they warn,  advising governments and the industrial sector to look inwards, in a bid to insulate themselves against such disruptions in the future.  

 Apart from insulating local production of goods and services, innovation also saves the country a tidy sum in foreign exchange and create badly needed jobs.

CoVID-19 has forced decision-makers to get out of their comfort zone and think outside the box.  And they have discovered that some solutions to their problems are available at home.  It will be difficult for them, especially the government, to look elsewhere in the future.

The industrial sector is advised to change with the times. They should exploit the COVID-19 disruption to entrench themselves in the domestic markets. For instance, the Kenyan textile industry is still reeling from many years of competition from used cloth importers. 

This is an opportunity for them to take back the market.  There is a demand for quality, affordable clothes. All they need to do is expand their production to exploit economies of scale to compete out importers. Welcome to the future! 


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