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Ethiopia’s languages, modified WhatsApp, Ghana’s MLK moment

This story was published on our Quartz Africa Weekly newsletter, News and culture from around the continent.
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Hi, Quartz Africa readers!

Coronavirus hits

The last fortnight has been a rude awakening for Sub-Saharan Africa as fears of the coronavirus’s inevitable arrival were realized. First in Nigeria, then Senegal, then South Africa, Cameroon, and Togo.

The numbers are still low as of press time, with Senegal’s four confirmed cases and South Africa’s two the only countries with multiple cases to date. That won’t last of course. The ease with which the virus spreads means there will likely be at least several more cases if not many, many more.

Contrary to early speculation, the close integration of China and Chinese people into Africa’s economies over the last few decades has not been the key vulnerability when it comes to an outbreak, even though it started in China’s Hubei province. Instead, most (so far) of the cases in Africa have come via older trading partners in Europe, including France and Italy.

North Africa, with closer ties to Europe by way of proximity, long-term migration, trade and tourism, has seen coronavirus case numbers jump in Algeria and Egypt in particular.

Like everywhere else, the continent’s economies will be deeply affected by a global slowdown exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak, and the ripple effects of China’s economy taking a major hit. This is particularly true of countries that have built close economic ties built in recent years with China.

This has meant a drop in Chinese demand for commodities. For example, oil prices are falling, which hurts major oil producers including Nigeria. But Angola, the continent’s no. 2 producer, will take a more direct hit, as a significant portion of its oil exports go to China. It’s an even more significant share of oil exports for South Sudan. Development Reimagined, a consultancy based in Beijing, estimates up to 99% of South Sudan’s exports in dollar terms go to China.

“We understand South Sudan has guaranteed arrangements for infrastructure financing as payment, so they may not be as vulnerable in reality despite being off the chart compared to others for how dependent on Chinese demand they are,” notes Development Reimagined CEO Hannah Ryder.

In relative terms, when it comes to trade, African countries are not as vulnerable as Asian economies like Vietnam and Philippines, says Ryder.

Still, the Chinese economy may have to divert resources to contain the coronavirus and rebuild its own economy, says Brookings Institution’s Landry Signé. “Chinese investment projects could be delayed, some  may even be canceled and China may not be able to follow through on all its financing commitments.”

Indeed on Friday, Nigeria’s transport minister said the country’s long-awaited $1.5 billion Lagos-Ibadan rail project would be pushed back because Chinese workers who went home for the Lunar Year holidays in mid-February had not returned due to the coronavirus crisis. Expect to read more examples like this in coming weeks.

Yinka Adegoke, Quartz Africa editor

Five stories from this week

Ethiopia is adding four more official languages to tackle growing political instability. Prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s latest reforms focus on the country’s language diversity. Abiy’s betting on more inclusion in the national language policy to smooth over long-running ethnic tension and unify Africa’s second most populous country, Samuel Getachew reports from Addis Ababa.

A murder scandal, Lesotho’s prime minister, his wife and an African lesson on the rule of law. Allegations of prime minister Tom Thabane’s involvement in the murder of his second wife—two months before he married his third wife—are rocking Lesotho politics. Yet, as Norma Young explains, the progress of the case is a credit to the country’s judiciary as it debates whether Thabane will become the first African leader to be prosecuted for domestic murder while in office.

WhatsApp is so popular in Africa, even knock-off versions are used more often than Facebook. WhatsApp’s massive popularity across Africa has been under-reported. But as Yomi Kazeem explains, unofficial and modified versions of the social messaging app created by third-party developers are used more often than Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat in key African internet markets.

The trip to newly independent Ghana that inspired an iconic Martin Luther King sermon. The preacher’s “Birth of a New Nation” sermon, delivered two months before the US passed its epochal 1957 Civil Rights Act, carried a poignant message of pan-Africanism. As Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu reflects, King’s sermon was shaped by the activist’s presence in Ghana for the country’s independence celebrations, and his admiration for Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s freedom fighter and prime minister.

The new Lagos museum with art fit for a prince. The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art in Lagos is unique in that it is named for its benefactor, Prince Yemisi Shyllon and features over 1,000 pieces of art pieces from his 7,000-strong collection of African art. Shyllon, often noted as Nigeria’s biggest art collector, tells Oluwatosin Adeshokan in Lagos that by funding the museum, he hopes to inspire and educate Africans about their heritage.

The Dealmaker

•London-based private equity firm Actis acquired a majority stake in Rack Centre, a Nigerian cloud and data center company which counts MTN, Orange, and Airtel among its clients. Actis plans to invest $250 million over the next three years across the continent.

•South African mobility startup, WhereIsMyTransport raised $7.5 million in a Series A round led by Liil Ventures with participation from existing investors, Global Innovation Fund and Goodwell Investments, as well as new investors Google, Nedbank, and Toyota Tsusho Corp.

AYO Technology Solutions launched a $12.7 million investment fund for African startups. Half of the fund will be dedicated to backing South African companies.

Chart of the Week

Corruption and congestion at Nigeria’s biggest port are costing importers thousands of dollars. Imports carry a consistently high cost for businesses bringing in shipments to Africa’s most populous country. Compared to Ghana’s Tema port and South Africa’s Durban port, Nigeria’s Apapa, Lagos port has the highest shipping costs, terminal charges, and average local transport prices, according to new research.

Quartz Membership

A college education can’t guarantee success in the digital economy So what can? Quartz’s Michael J. Coren reports on the challenge to transform education and close the widening gap between a slow-moving higher ed system and a fast-moving economy—without miring students in debt.

Other things we liked

Unlocking the secrets of African DNA could change the world. Genetics research—and advances in precision medicine—are limited by the largely European genomes that make up scientists’ datasets. For Financial Times ($), Neil Munshi highlights efforts to expand the diversity of cataloged genomes by tapping the continent of Africa, where roughly 99% of humans’ evolutionary history occurred. It also asks if Africans will stand to profit from research that comes out of such efforts.

Why African farmers struggle to export to the United States. Last month Namibia exported 25 tonnes of beef to the United States, it was the first African country to ever do so. But as the Economist explains there isn’t likely to be an opening of the floodgates for beef exports to the US. Even though the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)  was set up to encourage duty-free exports to the US there is much that needs to be improved to see a significant uptick.


Commonwealth Youth Forum.

Young African leaders

can apply

to attend the forum in Rwanda to explore solutions to key challenges facing young people on the continent. (Mar. 20)

Microsoft Research PhD Scholarship Program. Award recipients will receive $15,000 to complete research as part of their doctoral thesis work for the 2020-2021 academic year. (Apr. 1)

Keep an eye on

Like elsewhere in the world, major Africa-related events, including the Next Einstein Forum in Nairobi and Africa CEO Forum in Abidjan, have been canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

*This brief was produced while listening to Fatiliku by Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita (Cuba/Mali).

Our best wishes for a productive and ideas-filled year ahead. Please send any news, comments, suggestions, ideas, WhatsApp mods and tickets for Lagos’ Shyllon Museum to You can follow us on Twitter at @qzafrica for updates throughout the day.

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