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How Covid-19 is inspiring new ideas despite being disruptive

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The disruption of Covid-19 has fueled some enterprising responses from Nigerians who are creating a new normal from emerging opportunities. TEMITAYO AYETOTO reports.

There is no doubt that the outbreak of the coronavirus has resulted in a public health catastrophe, which in no time has evolved into not only an economic crisis but also escalated into a security threat.

The relentless growth in the spread of the virus and the curbing measures that followed, also spelled doom for many business outfits and entrepreneurs, who have experienced disrupted operations, laid off staff and witnessed sudden stoppages in cash flows, among other negatives.

Despite this obviously distressing situation, some enterprising Nigerians have refused to give in to the tales of woe and are turning the seeming gloom into positive prospects. According to the findings of the second round of Nigeria Covid-19 National Longitudinal Phone Survey (Covid-19 NLPS), conducted in June 2020, some entrepreneurs remained unmoved, and assumed a can-do mindset, to leverage on emerging opportunities.

Before Covid-19 crept into the world, the use of personal protective equipment was largely preserved for surgeons to maintain sterile fields during operations or avoid respiratory droplets and the spraying of body fluids on the face. In other cases, it was used occasionally by sick patients to prevent the spread of pathogens. However, as the invisible enemy raged, the application of PPEs rapidly moved from the shadows of critical clinical procedures to the stage of common use by all and sundry, ill or not. Consequently, the spread of the disease in Nigeria, left healthcare workers nationwide, struggling to care for an ever-increasing number of patients, with not enough protective gear like masks, gowns, gloves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE), to safeguard themselves.

Azuka Ijekeye, founder of Interstreet Messenger Technologies, is one entrepreneur who recognised a pressing need in government’s response and management of Covid-19 in hospitals. His firm built a Covid-19 sample collection booth, to ramp up testing in Africa’s most populous country, with a focus on eliminating what had quickly become a perennial need for personal protective equipment (PPE).

Ijekeye revealed: “We realised that though sample collection is very important because it leads to testing, the biggest constraint was personal protective equipment. It is expensive, usually used only once and mostly required at the frontline where the doctors and nurses are attending directly to patients.”

According to the CEO, “At the sample collection stage, we feel that if we can remove the need for personal protective equipment, we will be helping the cause. It means more of the personal protective equipment will be used by those at the frontline and that’s where our TS Module comes in.”

Azuka’s TS Module, a positive pressure test sample collection booth for Covid-19, which delivers a sealed, sterile environment for medical staff, while ensuring zero direct contact between healthcare professional and patients. It was designed and built within three weeks, by the Lagos-based IMT, to service this need.

Built as a 2-station booth with a positive pressure, PPEs are not required by medics, freeing up scarce PPEs for other frontline workers. Having 2-stations allows for simultaneous sample collection that maximises booth use and delivers optimal return on investment.

To set this up, Azuka combined his knowledge of biological sciences, manufacturing and technology, with the efforts of his small team of industrial designers, engineers and fabricators. Their objective was to build a product that could help flatten the curve.

He explains further: “It has been done in Korea but they had single use booths. Our TS Module, built by local hands with locally sourced materials, needed to maximise the use of all the invested funds. For that reason, we have put in two stations, so that there’s a simultaneous collection of samples on both sides of the booth. That ensures that the return on investment is ramped up and with 20 of our booths, each state can test almost 5,000 samples daily.”

While expected government patronage is yet to take off, the initiative has been receiving encouraging traction from private sector entities. It could prove to be a prototype that can help the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) achieve its target of testing 50,000 people in 36 states by the end of July, 2020.

Kelechi Uchenna is another entrepreneur who has identified the positive side of the Covid-19 crisis. Uchenna is head of a training and development company called Innovative Digital Learning (IDL) ─ a platform that works with businesses to improve their staff productivity through high quality training programmes.

Uchenna’s initiative aligns with what the multinational, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), describes as accelerating digital transformations for working remotely, to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

Taking the pulse of his customers and thinking through longer-term considerations around shifts in core markets or business models as a result of the pandemic, Uchenna launched the IDL Digital School, the digital skills training arm of IDL in May, 2020. The core focus is on digital skills training.

The entrepreneur told BDSUNDAY that “What the market really wanted was digital skills training such as data, analytics, product management and artificial intelligence, which are the core tech digital skills that help individuals get jobs and help businesses increase their revenue and profit.”

The new goal became clearer when Covid-19 hit and training demands dropped along with shrinking consumer spending. He had to rethink the business when he reviewed the result of an online market survey, using a Google form questionnaire sent to career professionals, business owners and entrepreneurs. He sampled the key training areas they believed were needed the most going forward post-Covid-19. He found that there was a high demand for data analytics, data science, product management, project management and virtual work skills, confirming to him the market need during this period. These are the skills that could help individuals get jobs and businesses increase their revenue.

IDL trainings are now held online with a faculty of 10 experienced professionals and a learning community of about 300 people constantly engaged. The new virtual business was the same that barely got three people to sign up for soft skills training in 2019. The cost of switching including marketing and internet and online subscription was about N100,000.

“Now, we are doing master-classes on data analytics with excel and having about 100 people fill the form. You can see the difference. In as much as the revenue has not gone up exponentially, the business is at least moving and we are able to do something that the market actually wants,” the IDL chief executive said.

BDSUNDAY notes that there are many other entrepreneurs who have continued to exploit opportunities such as face-mask production, production and sale of sanitisers and water dispensers, in the wake of the surge in hygiene awareness.

The advocacy for building a strong immune system against the fast spreading virus has equally boosted production and sale of local spices and herbs such as ginger, garlic and turmeric, as well as other immune enhancing products.

The latest World Bank Nigeria Development Update (NDU) released in June, predicts that the collapse in oil prices, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, is expected to plunge the Nigerian economy into a severe economic recession, the worst since the 1980s.

According to the report, “Nigeria in Times of Covid-19: Laying Foundations for a Strong Recovery,” it estimates that Nigeria’s economy would likely contract by 3.2 percent in 2020, if the spread of Covid-19 in Nigeria is contained by the third quarter. If, however, the spread of the virus becomes more severe, the economy could contract further.

Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, the Nigerian economy was expected to grow by 2.1 percent in 2020, which means that the pandemic has led to a reduction in growth by more than five percentage points.

The report shows that while the human cost of Covid-19 could be high, beyond the loss of life, the pandemic shock alone is projected to push about 5 million more Nigerians into poverty in 2020. While before the pandemic, the number of poor Nigerians was expected to increase by about 2 million largely due to population growth, the number would now increase by 7 million – with a poverty rate projected to rise from 40.1 per cent in 2019 to 42.5 percent in 2020. Indeed, the report also reveals that over 40 percent of Nigerians employed in non-farm enterprises reported a loss of income in April-May 2020.

Nevertheless, Nigerians are known for being enterprising, hard-working and optimistic. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) the re-opening of activities by big formal sector players, account for why the commerce and services sectors ─ those hardest hit by the Covid-19 crisis – experienced among the largest recoveries within the workforce. In addition, while some skill-thirsty individuals are picking up new courses on various free online platforms for self-development, others are turning to completely new paths and careers in order to adjust to the new normal.

The economy will no doubt show greater signs of recovery, as the effects of the reduction of lockdown measures, begin to manifest.

This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality Check project.