Africa: What Does Ebola Reveal About Business?

Burial workers in the Sierra Leonean city of Kenema have gone on strike. This has seen 15 bodies left in the main hospital because individuals have not been paid their October and November allowances for handling Ebola victims. It follows a similar action two weeks ago. Yet beyond fear and poverty, this situation does highlight the infrastructure problems dogging Sierra Leone and the rest of the continent.

In fact, the Ebola crisis in West Africa has almost presented a perfect-version-in-miniature of the issues facing businesses across the continent. This covers the fairly appalling infrastructure, some shocking western attitudes but most of all the shortage of data.

Ebola seems to be slowing down. The reporting has definitely stepped down a touch anyway (perhaps not to worry people) and although the first Italian Ebola victim was reported this week the World Health Organisation has been noticing a levelling of cases for weeks. Yet the real trouble is the data just isn’t very good.

This is exactly the same issue facing any organisation dealing with the continent; there is a lot of basic information that doesn’t exist. There is a bespoke African Engineers Federation (FAEO), for example, yet there is no up-to-date record of African engineers. This trend is the same everywhere. It makes it extremely difficult to tell what is really going on now. And more importantly perhaps, impossible to predict what is likely to happen in future.

These issues stem from unreliable government sources and the difficulty of gathering data on such a divided continent. They also arise from different cultural priorities. Africans, generally, are far less preoccupied with systematic categorisation than Western countries.

Now take Ebola. There is a stigma to this disease. This leads to active denial that it is happening. This in turn presents a limited picture of what is actually going on. A recent BBC special report by Tulip Mazumdar covered a journey from Freetown in Sierra Leone, north into Guinea and up to the city of Conakry. It revealed a stark change in perception across the border.

"Some people prefer to die in the village rather than come here to get help," one Guinea treatment centre doctor explained. While another man told Mazumdar: "We don't have any Ebola here. I don't know what is killing all these people - but Ebola is not real." It is impossible to tell what is going on.

Beyond the challenges on the ground there is also an extremely pejorative attitude by the West to the Ebola crisis. This should, of course, come as no surprise to anyone, yet there are times when it has bordered on colonial. Even forgetting the initial indifference to the outbreak there is skewed perception of a whole ‘infected continent’.

Holiday resorts stand empty in untouched parts of West Africa, which may make a modicum of sense. But people are cancelling trips to Kenya [BBC radio documentary] - nearly three and half thousand miles away.   

Africa is a continent not a country. It may be lumped together by outsiders but this is not the case internally. And there has certainly been no clamouring of African nations to provide assistance to infected countries.

Yet when the West does squarely get involved, it is amazing how quickly things happen. It was announced yesterday that preparations are under way in Guinea to begin clinical trials to try to find a cure. These should start in about a month.

Imagine if that much interest was taken in malaria? African businesses face similar problems across the board. Even in Kenya, which has one of the healthiest startup ecosystems on the continent, local businesses face difficulties gaining funding if they do not have ties to the West.

There is no obvious solution to all this. But if making problems obvious is the key to getting anything done, maybe there can a least be a tiny benefit to this whole, horrible, crisis?


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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