By Father Bossou Constant SJ, Miller Center Jesuit-in-Residence
In summer 2021, Father Bossou Constant SJ, Miller Center Jesuit-in-Residence, spent time working with social enterprises in West Africa. These enterprises are all alumni of a 3-day Boost workshop that Miller Center delivered in partnership with West African Jesuits in 2017 and 2018. In conversation with Keith Warner, Miller Center’s Chief Learning Officer, Bossou shares his research and reflections. This is the second in a series of 3 articles. (Read the first article: Social Entrepreneurs Distinguish Themselves in West Africa)
How are the people managing COVID in West Africa?
The pandemic began in West Africa as early as March 2020. As I write in the summer of 2021, this region of Africa is experiencing the third wave of the outbreak, fueled largely by the Delta variant. People are getting infected every day and some are dying. However, the fatality rate is relatively low compared to other parts of the world.
At this point, the impact of COVID on West Africa is more related to the economy than to people’s health. During the first wave, lockdown as well as reduced activities imposed on the population crippled an economy that was already suffering. Many businesses simply closed. Food shortages nearly caused a famine before many economies reopened.
Another problem related to the pandemic is vaccination. While vaccine distribution is beginning to catch up in Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the Africa director of the World Health Organization is quoted in the New York Times saying, “There’s no doubt that vaccine hesitancy is a factor in the rollout of vaccines.” The article attributes this in part to “deep distrust of governments and medical authorities, especially among rural and marginalized communities” and the legacy of Western exploitation. I have personally met many Africans who do not want to take the vaccine at all for reasons that cannot be ignored. It’s a fact that a number of people who have received the vaccine in West Africa have died due to complications. I personally believe that those who died after being vaccinated had underlying health conditions that required care before taking the vaccine. However, such care is almost nonexistent for poor people in West Africa.
How have our West African social enterprise alumni navigated COVID?
All of our alumni from West Africa spoke of having been negatively impacted by COVID. Many of them talked about paying rent and their employees as the most challenging thing that they experienced as a result of the pandemic. Some of them went out of business exactly because of that.
6 out of 27 alumni from Cameroon have gone out of business due to the pandemic, 7 out of 32 in Togo, 5 out of 27 in Benin, and 7 out of 27 in Liberia. One such example is a company (AFJD) based in Cameroon that works with inmates in the form of visits and social reintegration when they get out. When the pandemic began, they couldn’t carry out any of their normal activities and just went out of business.
To be able to cope with COVID’s negative economic impact, those that survived have done so by diversifying their activities. Many of the advanced social enterprises started training sessions over zoom in order to survive. For example, Habiba Natural Care, an organic cosmetics company that we trained in Cameroon, began offering training sessions for other women that want to distribute their products. They were making up to $600 a month for those training sessions in order to recoup their monthly sales that went from $1,500 a month to $500 a month in 2020 due to the pandemic. Luckily, in 2021, their sales have gone up again and their overall annual revenue has gone significantly up thanks to the training sessions they have held for women in various parts of Cameroon.
A few SEs have seen COVID as an opportunity or a happy fall since it led them to think more strategically about their activities. They reinvented themselves and their mission as a way to survive.
Kekeli Lab is a Togolese tech start-up with potential, although it’s been devastated by COVID. Following the Boost, the director showed a lot of interest in Miller Center’s methodology and followed up with several team members. The enterprise is dedicated to alleviating technology poverty for education. Its main product is a router-like device that is a digital library with a mobile app as its front-end software. The device is branded “Kekeli Lab” and is entirely made and programmed by the enterprise’s own technicians. It has partnered with an international company to manufacture the device. Some schools in Togo are already using it and more are interested. In 2016, the enterprise was selected by the Swiss Université de Lausanne to participate in the Clinton Global Institute University at UC Berkeley. That captured our attention during the Boost recruitment process, and the program helped the company develop a better business model. Unfortunately, the pandemic forced them out of business because schools were no longer interested in the product, and they are struggling. So far, they have been unable to resume operations.
The mission of WACSA SARL, a Beninese enterprise, is to contribute to the development of agribusiness in Benin. The company helps farmers and animal breeders with best practices to increase their production. Boost helped WACSA increase its annual revenue of 2017 by 28.5% (from $13K to $16.7K). It saw a 46% increase in annual revenue in 2018. However, they were hit hard financially during the pandemic and decided to change their mission and their activities in order to survive. They abandoned agribusiness and went into water and sanitation. They clean people’s water tanks and install boreholes with new water tanks in rural areas in Benin.
A WASCA SARL company worker installing a borehole water tank in a rural village in Benin
Habiba Natural Care training women to make soap that they can sell locally to provide for their families (during COVID)