The Chairperson of the African Union (AUC) Commission Mr. Moussa Faki Mahamat in March 2020 established the AU COVID-19 Response Fund to strengthen a continental response to the pandemic. Having raised $44 million by October 2020, a further $300 million fundraising effort was launched that month. In an interview with Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor, Professor Benedict Oramah explains how Africa is mobilizing funds and why more donations are needed urgently.
As the Chairman Board of Trustees of the AU COVID-19 Response Fund, what are your three key achievements so far and what challenges have you faced?
The AU COVID-19 Response Fund was created by the Africa Union as an emergency response to the pandemic. It was created essentially for the continent to have a whole-of-Africa approach to the pandemic. We have 55 fragmented economies. And if you take your mind back to April last year, the big issues were personal protective equipment (PPE) and test kits, and the big economies were buying them all up. The manufacturers were not going to listen to small economies placing orders of a few million or thousands of dollars. So, the response fund was intended to help us deal with such issues.
As soon as we were created, we set up the structures to make it possible for us to operate in an effective way. We were asked to intervene in two areas: to help mobilise funds and to help in the utilisation of the funds. So we quickly created two key subcommittees for these. Of course, we are serving essentially the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
We launched a fund mobilization exercise early enough with the support of the Africa Union, chaired at the time by President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, and with the help of the AU Commission Chairperson Mr. Moussa Faki Mahamat; Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong; AU Commissioner for Social Affairs Ms. Amira ElFadil and others. We are pushing to get all the pledges redeemed. The money is coming largely from AU states, and from the AU’s development partners—the German government, other countries in the European Union, the British government, and so on.
Do you have sufficient funds as we speak?
We don't have sufficient funds because as we get the money, we use it. On mobilisation, I think we have a healthy pipeline of pledges that we should collect. We organised a fundraising event with the private sector participating. And many of them have made pledges. What we're doing now is making sure that we convert the pledges to cash—pledges from governments, from development partners, from the private sector.
We want to raise more money, and for that purpose, we recently hired a fund mobilisation consultant who will help us mobilize funds and get pledges converted to cash.
Do we have enough money? No, the needs are many because we are funding the rapid responders. We are funding countries that need to get therapeutics. Even now we are supporting the Africa CDC with the vaccine rollout. So, we need funds to do all the work that needs to do done. That is why we are planning a revamped fundraising initiative to make sure that we complement the other funds that are already being mobilised, including through the Africa CDC. We also promote that people can donate to Africa CDC. If we add all the funds raised so far, apart from those that the Africa CDC is raising separately, we are talking about pledges of more than $100 million.
How challenging is it getting donors to redeem their pledges?
Well, things are difficult these days. Companies are struggling; countries are struggling. To that extent, yes, the redemption of the pledges is coming at a slower pace than expected.
However, I must commend many African countries that, despite the challenges, have come out to not only make the pledges but paid up. There are a few that we are encouraging to make pledges. The benefit of paying up is that it makes it easier for our whole-of-Africa intervention push. I give an example: we supported the procurement of dexamethasone drugs, one of the drugs being used to treat COVID-19. Part of the funding came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and we matched that funding.
Let’s talk about logistics. Unless we can take care of the logistics of distribution, the island economies will pay more than the other countries. So, when we do procurement, we do a fair and equitable distribution of some of these products so that countries get them at about the same time and at no extra cost. That is why we are pleading with African countries that have not pledged to pledge and those that have pledged but have not redeemed to please redeem, while also appealing to donors, including African businesses, to make donations.
Some of the donations received on the vaccine front include that made by MTN [a mobile telecommunication company]. That donation is separated from those coming through the AVATT [Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team]. MTN pledged about $25 million, which we have used on vaccine supplies.
How do you coordinate effectively with the Africa CDC and other pan-African institutions involved in the response?
The fund [AU COVID-19 Response Fund] is an AU creation. We used to meet every week but now we are meeting once a month. Meeting participants include the Africa CDC, and the members of the Board of Trustees are drawn from all parts of Africa—north, east, west and south. We have people from the private sector. Through this mechanism, we reach countries. Where we need to deal with things that are specific to certain regions, the members of the board of trustees from that region will take the responsibility for that.
Has Afreximbank paid to the fund?
Of course, Afreximbank has been providing support, not only because I'm from Afreximbank, but also in the spirit of what the bank does. We pledged our donation that we paid up. We are also making other contributions that we are not recording as donations in terms of providing human resources. As I said we hired and are paying the salary of a fund mobilisation consultant.
What support, if any, is Afreximbank giving to countries to contain the pandemic?
Well, let me start by saying that we are very familiar with dealing with crises because we are a bank created out of a crisis. Afreximbank was conceived in the 1980s when we had the debt crisis. Since we began operations in 1994, there have been many crises and the bank responded. It’s like we have a toolbox for responding to a crisis.
That was why as early as March 2020, we launched the Pandemic Trade Impact Mitigation Facility, which was created to support countries to adjust, in an orderly manner, to the crisis. Using that facility, we have so far disbursed about $7 billion, and that helped many countries to make trade debt payments that were due. We knew that if we didn't support the countries and they default on trade debt, the recovery would be very difficult for them because markets have long memories but a short vision. That has really benefited the continent.
Included in that facility is a $200 million facility we co-launched with the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) to support the manufacture of COVID materials within the continent—the PPE, facemasks and all that. If you recall, this time last year everybody was scrambling for these items, and Africa suffered. So, we provided funding to companies to repurpose their factories to produce simple facemasks and PPE.