Covid-19 has changed the world, but African communities are working to innovate in the face of the crisis. One of the institutions participating in discussions with African partners is the United States African Development Foundation (USADF), an independent U.S. government agency established by Congress to invest in African grassroots organizations, entrepreneurs and small-and medium-sized enterprises. AllAfrica’s Juanita Williams visited by video with USADF President and CEO C.D. Glin about the challenges, the opportunities and the resilience he sees every day. Excerpts from their conversation:

In response to the pandemic, USADF is helping the communities you are partnering with across Africa to re imagine their futures during and after Covid-19. Please talk about what you see as the situation and how you are responding.

Right now there is a shared understanding of the challenges. At the U.S. African Development Foundation, because we were going through the things we were here [in the United States], it was viscerally important for us to know that we needed to provide the same kind of response efforts [in Africa].

So our government created a response program called Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security. The government gave immediate financial relief support to Americans throughout the country. And because we know the health crisis is leading to economic crisis, the government wanted to step in. We were looking at what we could do to respond.

We don’t do a lot of work in the health space at USADF. Most of our work is in the agriculture, in the energy and the entrepreneurship and employment space. So we said, ‘This is a health crisis. This is about saving lives, but it’s also about saving livelihoods. There is a role for USADF.

We said, ‘Let’s come up with our own USADF C.A.R.E.S. program. It was about capital – working capital for African resilience building – and livelihood support for the enterprises that we’re supporting.

Our response needed to be three-pronged. We need a relief effort. That’s an immediate injection of working capital to build resilience and to support the enterprise. We also knew that businesses, some of them, will never be the same again. They’re going to need to re-purpose their business models and reconfigure their businesses to respond to this new normal.

And lastly, we knew that some businesses are going to get re-imagined; there’s going to be a resilient way. You know, tragedy sometimes leads to opportunity. There’s a phrase: Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.

An opportunity for enterprises to survive, adapt and thrive in spite of Covid.

This is an opportunity for some people to not only withstand the shock of Covid, but to survive through it, to adapt to it, and thrive in spite of it. We were really clear that we needed a relief effort. We needed a reconfiguration effort, and we needed resilience to re-imagine the business.

How do we give immediate working capital? How do we give business continuity support to that business, that community organization, that farm organization? We’ve invested in those communities, Juanita. So why let all of our investments go to waste?

We need to shore up, we need to preserve the gains. We made an investment in those communities, and they’ve made an investment in themselves. Relief capital may be to find new opportunities for transportation, because public transportation has shut down. Relief capital may be for them to fund their employees for the next two months, in a time when they can’t work.

How do we look at supply chain challenges that are going to come due to Covid? The lockdown means that economic activity will become limited, so we wanted to provide an injection of capital so that they could get through these times.

But we also wanted to help provide new thinking around the business. So we told a lot of our partners and grantees: We want you to help organizations rethink their business models.

So what we’ve seen is people in the textile industry – garment and textiles – were making great fashion, selling them locally, and selling them abroad. We said, “Well, there’s very little trade and investment happening right now. You have manufacturing and textile skills, and the need now isn’t for new designer dresses or new designer handbags. The need is for personal protection equipment. The need is for masks. The need is for smocks, for gowns for things that they need in hospitals. Can you manufacture those?”

We needed organizations to re-purpose and reconfigure the business to respond to what’s needed. So we have young entrepreneurs and textile cooperatives that were making garments and fashion accessories – for the tourism industry that has dried up – now making masks and personal protective gear.

We work in off-grid energy. We support a number of solar solutions. These are typically solar home solutions, and somewhat to power equipment. Those energy enterprises – 100 percent African renewable energy entrepreneurs – we went to them and they came to us.

Using USADF’s off-grid energy work to strengthen the healthcare response

The issue was: hospitals, rural health clinics, isolation centers, they all need power. They didn’t have power. They weren’t open 24 hours. But now we need to create hospital beds; we need to create isolation centers. Using their power, not only for home solutions. Now those businesses provide 24-hour access to power in medical facilities. All of a sudden, we’re using our energy work to strengthen the healthcare response.

You and I are doing this digitally. There may have been a time when you said, “C.D., let’s meet when you’re in Joburg or Nairobi; let’s meet so I can interview you when I’m in Washington or New York.” Now, we don’t have to do that. It’s going to be a long time before we go back to hopping on a plane for an interview.

The reality is that the virtualization, the digitization transformation, was already happening in Africa. I spent almost six years in Nairobi, Kenya,  the ‘Silicon Savannah’. When I left in 2011 from Washington, DC, I was swiping my card to make transactions. And then I got to Nairobi, and they weren’t even using cards! It was all mobile money with Mpesa.

The transformation that was happening in Africa, I think is going to be sped up to be particularly productive. The digitization that businesses need, so journalists such as yourself can interview people like me virtually, we could have done it before. Now we have to do it.

There are things that are happening with digitization, with business models, with young entrepreneurs, with African enterprises – supply chains in rural areas to meet urban areas. The rural people are feeding the urban people that are locked down. That market in Turkana is going to be feeding Nairobi, before any food is shipped from the United States or the UK to Nairobi. It’s going to be local markets. We’re seeing digitization, localization, virtualization change everything in relation to what’s needed now in this Covid-19 response era.

You were saying what the new normal is and what the next normal is. I like that; that makes sense, because, as you say, nothing’s going to be the same again. With everything changing, like me having to interview you this way, and markets becoming more local, how long do you think the  program will go on for?

I think USADF C.A.R.E.S. was the catalyst for the U.S. African Development Foundation to think about how we look at not only the support that we provide, but at the investment of time, of money for building capacity into these African organizations. We need to have a long-term commitment. And we also need to be responsive. So: demand driven, but also demand responsive.

We need to link more to those communities. If we want to find out what’s happening in South Sudan, or Somalia, or in Niger, or Mali, or Zimbabwe, we need to be on the ground, not physically, but intellectually, in the insights from our grantees. “What do you need? What are you facing?”

Covid is making us more physically separated, but more connected than ever. You can tell me stories about your own personal life, and I can do the same, of how you’re reaching out to friends and you’re having video chats and virtual birthday parties. USADF has become very conscious of our need to be more connected to those communities, so that we know we’re doing the right thing at the right time in the right way.

 Helping entrepreneurs think through today’s challenges – but also tomorrow’s – is part of our business model.

If we keep doing things the same way we were doing them before Covid, we’re going to try to go back to a situation that will never be again. The quick-relief capital of the USADF C.A.R.E.S. program may go away. But the focus on helping these enterprises, these self-help groups think through the challenges of today but also the challenges of tomorrow, is never going to go away. It’s part of our business model now.

Covid is the latest crisis, but it’s not the last. Before Covid, there’s climate change. Amidst Covid, there’s conflict. In East Africa, you see climate change and a locust outbreak, at the same time. Covid is there at the same time, that conflict is there. We know that we are faced with challenges every day. We can ‘bounce back better’ from this, but it takes organizations such as mine, the U.S. African Development Foundation, to be more connected, more inclusive, more driven by the demand and providing the responses that the African communities tell us that they need.

For me, the USADF C.A.R.E.S. program is a way for us to really try to live our values. I said it in my opening – locally led, participatory, African driven – all that’s great poetic words, right? But the reality of was the test case of if we’re true to who we say we are. And I’m proud to say that we were able to respond to the situation and adapt our model.

We have never before gone to a community and literally said, “What do you need right now to get through the next two weeks or two months? And then let’s figure out how to change your grant agreement and change your needs assessment for the future.”

They told us what they needed, Juanita. And we said, okay, we’re going to provide that level of support – to almost 400 organizations throughout the continent in 20 different countries, that are in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, the Great Lakes region and southern Africa. In this time of crisis, we are getting more connected to those communities, to those organizations, to those entrepreneurs, then we’ve ever been.

This is when we should really be tested for who we are! It’s bringing out the best in an organization such as mine, because it’s making us be more accountable to the people that we are provided funding to serve. We’re serving now in a new way.

Make sure poor, underserved communities are included in the ‘new normal’.

We’re helping them withstand and understand Covid and then helping them adapt – and ultimately helping them grow despite Covid. That growth mindset is really important. We have to ensure that grassroots communities, that poor and vulnerable populations that are underserved in society are included in this new normal. So there is an intense focus on people and an intense focus on process, and lastly, an intense focus on the programs: what we’re doing and how we do it.

First, we had to focus on our people. That was my staff in Washington and the colleagues and partners we have throughout  20 countries in Africa. And then on the grantees, their lives, asking, “Are you okay? Are you safe? Are you taking responsible actions to avoid contracting this virus?

We can’t go from Washington DC to Nairobi (Kenya), then five hours or 10 hours or whatever it may be, depending on the route, to Turkana. That’s not happening right now.

Even our local teams, they’re based in Nairobi – still far away from the communities, so they have to change the nature of their connection. And once we do figure out what they need in Turkana, we are helping them re-purpose and reconfigure their business and then to re-imagine. Now that you know how transportation systems have changed, can you re-imagine how you can support yourself and your community?

Some people are going to be faced with new business opportunities – I call it ‘new markets and new money’. They’re going to have new markets and new levels of support and funds.

Think about boda bodas in east Africa or okada drivers in west Africa [providing transportation on motorized bicycles or motorcycle taxis] or matatus [minibuses] in Kenya and kombi taxis [minivans] in southern Africa. All of these transportation systems in growing African cities were typically only transporting people. Well, if people are moving less, that doesn’t mean goods aren’t moving. All of a sudden, we see restaurant deliveries, we see grocery deliveries, we see drone deliveries. The same entrepreneurs that were driving people are now also transporting goods. We’re seeing service delivery change in a really interesting way. We’re seeing innovations.