This is what Ebola is doing to West African economies

The Adjamé market in Côte d’Ivoire is being affected by Ebola.
The Adjamé market in Côte d’Ivoire is being affected by Ebola.
Image: Reuters/Thierry Gouegnon
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Before Ebola broke out in parts of the West African sub-region, the Adjamé market in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire held its reputation as the biggest commercial hub for traders. Bus stations at the market connected travelers to all parts of Côte d’Ivoire and cities in neighboring countries. Today, this reputation for connecting traders and travelers in the sub-region is waning, since Cote d’Ivoire closed its land borders to neighboring Guinea and Liberia in late August.

People familiar with commercial traffic within the country speak of a dip in business. “The change in the market’s makeup is slow and you need be in the center of it to see it,” says Eugene N’goran, an officer in charge of a bus station at the Adjamé market. “Some drivers are either out of business or rerouting their vehicles to other destinations.” Although the borders were re-opened in October, there are more stringent health certification requirements for travelers from the three affected countries, making it nearly impossible for drivers to carry traders across the borders.

Over the last three weeks, I have traveled to five West African countries. My first trip was from Ghana to Nigeria, passing through Togo and Benin, then to Côte d’Ivoire. Much like most countries in the sub-region, Ebola had announced its presence. Beneath the seemingly normal interactions is a particular guardedness. In churches and places of communal gathering, handshakes have been replaced by shoulder bumps or waving. Hand sanitizers feature prominently in places of business. National land border posts have put up chlorine solution for travelers to wash hands in addition to the mandatory temperature screenings. Thanks to public education campaigns and improving support, people are making small lifestyle changes to try to beat the virus.

Yet, being in West Africa at this time means more than dying or being infected with the Ebola virus. Stigmatization and foreseeable economic loss seem to be the opportunity cost for survival.

Beyond the personal costs, there are signs that Ebola would set back both interregional and global businesses across different industries. One area is the ban of flights by international airlines such as British Airways, Emirates, Air France, Asky Airlines, and Arik Air to and from most affected countries. Considering the implications of such bans on businesses, some CEOs of multinational firms operating in West Africa released a joint statement calling for a review of such bans. There have also been reports of delayed business trips and the suspension of some major events, which would likely create a strain on the fabric of the global economy. A report by the Brookings Institution indicates that the Ebola epidemic is “halting trade, hurting agriculture and scaring investors.”

In Liberia and Sierra Leone, food and agricultural minsters point to an impending food crisis in their countries as most farmers have abandoned their farms and production revenue is heading low. The ripple effect could be dire in West Africa and beyond. Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS), has also warned that the spread of the virus would lead to food insecurity within the region. Going by the caseload projection of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) that 200,000 to 250,000 Ebola cases could be recorded by January 2015, FEWS estimates that more than 2.7 million people could reach a high-risk food security level by March 2015.

Africa’s largest football tournament is also in the balance, after Morocco—the designated host-nation—has made a case to the continent’s football governing body to either postpone or move the tournament to another country due to the Ebola outbreak. This cuts off the potential economic benefits from infrastructural development and the patronage of goods and services by an estimated 40,000 visitors expected in host nations. Last year, economists projected total revenue of $154 million to South Africa, which hosted the tournament.

In Burkina Faso, the 2015 edition of the biannual Pan-African Festival of Cinema and Television (FESPACO), noted for drawing in international visitors and huge economic benefits for the country’s tourism sector, is being cancelled. Although no official figures exist on the amount of revenue the festival generates, the country’s hospitality and service industries would lose the revenue created from the nearly one million visitors who may not be participating in the festival. This follows the cancellation of Tour de Faso, an annual cycling event in the country.

Though Burkina Faso has not registered any cases of Ebola, the country’s minister of communication has noted, “It is for safety precaution. We have a surveillance system that works well but with the case arisen in the United States of America, our system risks to become weak if ever there is the slightest case of Ebola in Burkina Faso. This is why the Burkinabe government avoids the organization of all events that can gather thousands of people.”

With the epidemic moving free of geographical restrictions, there’s a sense of common predicament in the bigger global community. The consequences have moved beyond make-believe and most West Africans have become acutely aware of the pain and despair that come from being close to the center of a global health crisis.