Photograph — endgadget

Amid the devastating economic and social fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, Mastercard Foundation launched its COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Program to assist institutions and communities in Africa and within indigenous communities in Canada to withstand and respond to the short-term impacts of the crisis, while strengthening their resilience in the long-run. 

In an Instagram live session, Ventures Africa talks to Chidinma Lawanson, Country Head MasterCard Foundation Nigeria, on the response so far, beneficiary countries, partnerships and intervention schemes under the program as well as the long-term view for the post-COVID era.

Chidinma Lawanson, Country Head Mastercard Foundation Nigeria.

Ventures Africa: As country head for Mastercard Foundation Nigeria, could you give a brief overview of how the company has been affected by and is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Chidinma Lawanson: We’re also part of the global community that has been affected by the pandemic, nobody was prepared for it. But in the midst of that, the foundation launched its COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Programme to ensure, first of all, that we assist first responders, the medical sector, and ensure that hospitals get the necessary equipment such as PPEs, sterile masks. We launched the program across all the countries where we operate – Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and the indigenous people in Canada.

The program covers all the activities of the foundation. So in each of the countries, we look at ways of helping the medical sector and then building the resilience of the communities, especially the micro, small and medium enterprises that have all been affected negatively by the pandemic. 

We have implementing partners, multilateral partnerships with other well-meaning donors and large corporates in each country, to ensure that these communities recover, build their resilience to go on post-pandemic, or even in the present pandemic environment because we don’t know how long it will last. 

VA: The foundation recently announced a partnership with Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, what is this about, and what led to the decision to collaborate? 

CL: With the Africa CDC, the partnership is to accelerate COVID-19 testing by pulling resources together to purchase 10 million test kits, ensure that 10 million people across Africa are tested, and in addition, ensure that 1 million community health workers are deployed across the continent. Africa CDC can use these resources and purchase as many kits, and then the African governments can get them from the CDC.

Purchasing them this way means it can get good discounts and prevent individual African countries from negotiating at higher prices for these scarce test kits. This has been endorsed by the African Union and heads of government. So all the countries in Africa would benefit from the liaison.

VA: What are some of the specific goals of the partnership and what’s the plan to achieve them? 

CL: The first goal is to ensure that Africa CDC purchased those kits. And then there is internal upskilling. So there’s capacity building of the 1 million community health workers and the CDC will also ensure that it relies on technology to look at the waves of how the pandemic goes. The main thing is to ensure that as people get sick with the pandemic, there is qualified medical personnel to deal with them. It’s cutting across the entire continent. And we’re very happy to be part of this deal that is ensuring that as the pandemic heats up, there are resources to help with that. 

VA: Being a target country, what does Nigeria stand to gain from the partnership with Africa CDC?

CL: Nigeria is one of the big heads of governments that have signed on to this partnership. So it will get its own portion of the test kits coming from Africa CDC. And we also partner with financial institutions to ensure that micro small and medium enterprises get single-digit interest loans to reignite their businesses because many of them have lost their capital during the lockdowns.

And we’re also enabling out-of-school students to do e-learning because schools are not yet back on and then focusing on ensuring that any digital platforms that can be used to enable businesses to go back to reigniting themselves and building the resilience of the communities. So in that regard, we have signed up some partnerships that are not tied only to the MasterCard Foundation. 

VA: If any, what is the timeline for projects being supported by the program, and how much has the Mastercard Foundation allocated to fund the COVID-19 program?

CL: In MasterCard Foundation, we tend to move away from mentioning numbers. That’s just the way we operate. We know that we have sufficient liquidity based on the help and assistance of course, by MasterCard cooperative setting up the foundation but both are independent companies. And then we try not to have very strangulating deadlines to say that the projects must finish at this time. But typically when we’re talking about recovery and resilience, we don’t know when the pandemic will end or when we’ll find a result either in vaccines or a drug. It could just become business as usual. You take a second drug and you’re fine, but many of the projects on our COVID-19 recovery and resilience program are typically about two years. 

VA: In terms of providing adequate support for first responders, which is part of your program, we had a recent chat with a special fund set up to provide better hazard allowance for health workers at the frontline of the outbreak. What is your take on this aspect of COVID-19 response; is there a need for more to be done or perhaps more conversations around the issue?

CL: Yes, there needs to be more conversation as I mentioned in that regard, the first respondents are really our first line of defense. Interventions in the medical sector area should also look at increasing the allowances of the medical responders. And apart from that, providing them with psychological health is crucial. It must be difficult to deal with COVID patients day in day out whether you’re providing support services for them or are actually the doctors and the nurses by their bedside when their families cannot be there. So we need to build up the capacities of the first responders to do their work and appreciate what they do because, without them, communities will be heavily at risk.

VA: Apart from the Africa CDC partnership, who are other partners the foundation is working with on the COVID-19 program?

CL: Many of them are on different levels. We look for partners that can make an impact and work with the government on the policy side. So, we have a relationship with YPO, they assisted in building one of the isolation treatment units for the pandemic. In addition, we’ve signed with Wemy Industries, a local manufacturing firm that has done a lot with feminine hygiene products for the medical sector and with Data Science Nigeria in the area of providing free online educational content for students in primary and secondary schools.

We have a partnership with Sterling Bank PLC to provide low-interest rates in single digits to the agriculture sector, all along the value chain from smallholder farmers to aggregators to logistics suppliers. Then there is Nourish Africa, to upskill those in the agric sector as well as Jobberman to use technological skills to bring together youths looking for jobs with those who are employing and upskilling them.

We’ve also signed with Enterprise Development Center of the Pan Atlantic University to ensure that they upskill the capacity of SMEs and with the IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) for the agric sector as well. So these are our partners in implementing the COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Program in Nigeria to date, but there are so many other projects that are coming up and then different levels of approval, be it in the banking sector, agric or digital and creative because as you know, the GDP of Nigeria was rebased because of the creative sector, so we are also having partners in that sector.

VA: As a seasoned expert in development finance with more than two decades of experience, what do you think small businesses need most and can do differently to survive the pandemic? 

CL: They need to keep upskilling themselves. There are many webinars that are around to make them start thinking of how to look differently into their businesses and what they can do differently. That is why we partner with the Enterprise Development Center to upskill SMEs. They need access to capital and we are encouraging financial institutions to keep lending to the micro, small and medium enterprises. Business owners need to look at their human resources and critically upgrade them if they’re not in tune with how to do business for today while they also internally look at their enterprises to enable them to retool.

VA: Mastercard Foundation had a core focus before the pandemic. How is the company balancing the COVID-19 response with the prior mandate?

CL: There was already a budget for each country and then when the pandemic hit, the foundation set up a separate budget to cover all the COVID-19 recovery and resilience programs so it covers across all the country. So while each country has its own budget, it also has access to the budget that was set up for the pandemic recovery and resilience program. So we don’t have to choose either or as we can do both. And that is one of the positive aspects of the MasterCard Foundation.

VA: Besides the immediate short term actions, does the foundation have a plan for the long run? Also, can we expect to see the partnerships being created under the program extend beyond the COVID-19 pandemic? 

CL: There will be an interlocking of marriage between the pandemic, pandemic projects, and our regular Young Africa Works. Resilience is a long-term plan. So some of the projects will naturally flow into our Young Africa Works strategy. And we’re looking internally to say apart from the projects that each country is facing in the project, there are other areas, like for Nigeria agriculture, creative industries, and the digital economy that we could focus on. As we look at happenings across the country, we’re constantly reviewing our plans so we can add more.

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