Africa’s billionaires called to help coronavirus fight

Workers in the northern Nigerian city of Kano set out rows of new hospital beds inside two cavernous tents that…

Workers in the northern Nigerian city of Kano set out rows of new hospital beds inside two cavernous tents that have been hastily erected on the pitch of an empty football stadium.

The facilities have been built to become an isolation centre for COVID-19 patients as Africa’s most populous nation braces for a potential surge in infections.

The person behind this project is Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, who was born in Kano and has built up a personal fortune on the back of his concrete empire that Forbes estimates at some $8 billion.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer and biggest economy, boasting a handful of billionaires whose super yachts can be seen bobbing on the waters of megacity Lagos.

But it is also a land of vast inequality where almost half of the 200 million population live in dire poverty and years of neglect has left the health system in tatters.

Now those who have made it big in Nigeria’s cutthroat business world are being called on to help tackle a crisis that experts warn could overwhelm the country.

At the end of February, a coalition of some 50 leading businesses spearheaded by Dangote’s foundation and Nigeria’s Access Bank pledged around $57 million (53 million euros) to bolster capacity.

“If everyone does their own thing then it creates a cacophony,” Zouera Youssoufou, the managing director of the Dangote Foundation, told AFP.

“So everyone puts in what they can depending on their size and they can pool resources.”

The private sector is building seven emergency isolation centres in key cities and looking to help increase testing rates which currently languish at around just 5,000.

– ‘Marshal every resource’ –

Around the globe, wealthy individuals from Bill Gates to Twitter’s Jack Dorsey have promised major contributions to take on the global pandemic.

China’s richest man Jack Ma, the founder of online retailer Alibaba, has dispatched over a million test kits and protective equipment to Africa.

So far Nigeria — and the continent more broadly — appears to have been spared the worst of disease.

Across Africa there have been some 18,500 documented infections and under 1,000 deaths, but experts warn the real numbers could be much higher as testing has been limited.

Now, as the figures mount, businesses and governments around the region are stepping up their own efforts to mobilise funds.

In South Africa, mining magnate Patrice Motsepe, the Rupert family and diamond kingpins the Oppenheimers have each pledged some $53 million to help with the fallout of the crisis.

The African Union (AU) has launched a public-private fund aiming to raise up to $400 million from governments, international lenders and businesses to curb transmissions and support the medical response.

“We must now focus on efforts to marshal every resource at our disposal to ensure that this pandemic is contained, and does not result in the collapse of already ailing economies,” South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said.

Tony Elumelu, the president of UBA bank and one of Nigeria’s wealthiest people, told AFP that there needed to be a “Marshall Plan” to help Africa weather the storm.

“There is an urgent need for African governments and international partners to step up with an emergency COVID-19 Economic Stimulus package for the continent,” said the magnate, who has offered $14 million of his fortune to tackle the crisis.

– ‘Follow that example’ –

But officials complain that getting big businesses in Africa and international lenders to cough up quickly for a continent-wide push is not easy.

“For now, no one has really participated,” one senior AU official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“The most inclined to give quickly are the Chinese. That is why we got the aid quickly from Jack Ma.”

We would like the African billionaires to follow that example but unfortunately too often it is a case of appearances only.”

The official pointed to the pledges of support during the Ebola epidemic that ravaged west Africa from 2014 to 2016.

“Beyond Dangote and Motsepe, very few people actually released the money,” the source said.

Richest man Dangote’s empire spreads across the continent with its tentacles of businesses and factories.

Youssoufou from the Dangote foundation insisted they want to “commit to the continent” but said the first priority was to help Nigeria.

“We are pan-African in essence,” she said.

“But first you put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.”