In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, states and countries battled each other for scarce medical supplies in what governors and executives called a high-seas black market, exposing the woeful inadequacy of the global supply chain.
At the same time, a Zimbabwean billionaire and logistics experts from across the continent built what has become a one-stop shop for African nations and medical facilities in the market for everything from personal protective equipment to diagnostic test kits, ventilators and even vaccines.
“My job was to figure out how to make sure 55 countries got access to a desperately needed resource which was in extremely short supply,” said Strive Masiyiwa, a Zimbabwean telecom magnate who was named the African Union’s special envoy on supply chains.
Less than a year after its inception, the African Medical Supplies Platform hosts more than 600 suppliers selling products that can help combat the coronavirus through an interface that is no more complicated than Amazon.com. Access is limited to countries, health systems, nongovernmental organizations and donor organizations like UNICEF. Middlemen are not welcome.
Those involved in the product’s development and those who have watched its early operations say it could become a model for the world, even after the pandemic subsides. It connects customers with suppliers across the globe, and African manufacturers with customers in search of their wares.
“Our birth really stems from the fragmented nature of how supplies were allocated on the continent,” said Chidinma Ifepe, a supply chain expert who heads buyer management for the platform from her home in Nigeria. The AMSP “came to actually bridge the gap between supply and demand.”
The platform is owned by a trust and operates through the African Export-Import Bank. The trust’s largest shareholder and main beneficiary is the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, headquartered in Ethiopia.
Masiyiwa recruited a panoply of African supply chain and technology experts from across nations that have not always worked well together in the past. Ifepe is Nigerian. Co-founder Fatoumata Ba is Senegalese. Another top executive is South African. In interviews, those leading the platform say their diversity has aided their success.
“We have been able to put together a team of extraordinarily talented Africans, and it’s something we have been extremely proud of,” Ba said.
In a recognition of the threat the pandemic poses, none of the 30 or so people who work on the platform have met in person, though they are constantly connected by video chats.
The coronavirus pandemic that began in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 and spread across Europe and the Americas beginning in 2020 came late to the African continent. By the time the first surges erupted, beginning in South Africa, wealthier nations had snapped up a huge chunk of the medical supplies that health systems and front-line care workers would need to protect themselves and treat their patients.
African nations also found themselves at the mercy of suppliers who wanted exorbitant fees for their products and middlemen who added their own fees. While wealthy governments could — and often did — pay those higher fees, the low- and middle-income countries on the continent often could not.
“If you manufacture something and the governor of California calls you in the morning, and the governor of Texas calls you at lunch time and the president of Zambia calls you at night, your price is going up each time,” Masiyiwa said in an interview Monday, from his home in London.
At the height of the scramble for N95 masks, African nations were asked to pay as much as $28 or $29 per unit, many of which proved counterfeit. Today, countries are paying less than $2 per high-quality mask, shipped directly from known manufacturers.
“We noticed that the shortages in some of these materials were creating an opportunity for price gouging, for corruption,” Ifepe said. “We wanted transparency in terms of cost.”
Throughout the pandemic, the hot commodities have shifted to reflect evolving situations on the ground.
“At one time, it was all about ventilators. Remember at the beginning of this crisis it was all about ventilators,” Masiyiwa said. “Then it was all about test kits and therapeutics. Today it’s about vaccines.”
Banding together under one umbrella group has also helped African nations keep costs down, as nations partner to order supplies so that they meet minimum sales requirements. If a million masks are available, small nations like the Seychelles, population 97,000, will pay the same price as Nigeria, home of 201 million people.
“The service we provide is the fact that we aggregate the purchases, so that the suppliers are not dealing with so many countries. They’re not concerned about the payment, because we do the payment,” Masiyiwa said.
In July, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, chairman of the African Union, extended eligibility to Caribbean nations that had also struggled to secure medical equipment. Fifteen of those countries have joined so far, Ba said.
Already, the platform is earning attention from other regions that see it as an ideal way to allocate scarce supplies, and to bring their procurement processes into the 21st century. Ifepe said many African nations were still handling contracts on paper as the pandemic began.
“The African Union, within months of this pandemic hitting, had a continental strategy, and they subsequently built a supply chain for the entire continent,” said Gayle Smith, chief executive of the ONE Campaign. “It bodes very well for the future. It’s a great model for how regions can organize.”
Latin American nations and Western Pacific countries have already inquired about borrowing the technology behind the platform for their own use.
Though it has tallied fewer cases and fewer fatalities than most other regions in the world, Africa lags far behind in vaccine administration. The international donor community has pledged 700 million doses of vaccine, a little under half what will eventually be required to hit a goal of inoculating 750 million people on the continent — and only a fraction of those pledged doses have arrived.
But Masiyiwa is hopeful that the international effort will both speed the end of the virus and bring together the nations that built and funded the platform.
“It points to a new approach to Africa,” he said. “For an old timer like me, this is exciting to see.”