China’s Coronavirus Slowdown: Which African Economies Will Be Hit Hardest?

 In analysis, op-ed, personal

File photo, Kenyan nurse Lucy Kanyi demonstrates to media the facilities and protective equipment to be used to isolate and treat coronavirus cases, at the infectious disease unit of Kenyatta National Hospital in the capital Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: AP Photo/Patrick Ngugi, File

COVID-19, first detected in Wuhan, China late last year, has so far spread to over 166 countries, areas, and territories, infected over 207,500 people, and killed over 8,650 people. It has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. The disease is not just having health effects. The virus continues to prompt travel restrictions within countries and across borders, and it has resulted in drastically reduced flows of people, services, goods, and money. Factories and companies have been closed indefinitely in mainland China, affecting the manufacturing of goods and trade between China and the rest of the world, including African countries. As a result, the world has seen oil prices plummet and stock markets tumble, and these challenges show no real sign of easing.

Before COVID-19 hit, Africa was forecast by the IMF to have six out of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies in 2020. That growth was much needed. Africa is also the continent with the largest numbers of poor people in the world – now estimated at over 400 million.

Yet it looks like the COVID-19 economic shocks could lead to a sharp increase in poverty, making it even harder for the continent to achieve the already extremely demanding UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. There are anecdotal reports of the economic fallout everywhere – for instance that South Africa, Nigeria, and Angola are already suffering from commodity price drops, and that Kenyan retailers are depleting stocks made in China and cannot find cheap alternatives. But how hard are these countries really being hit compared to others outside of Africa? And which countries will really be the hardest hit across Africa? To answer these questions, we have to go back to basics.

In theory, there are two types of effects that countries can feel from the COVID-19 “shocks” that have already taken place in China. The first effect is a “demand-side” shock. To explain in simple terms, we all know that several African (and other) economies export goods to China, to be used in factories or sold to Chinese consumers. For instance, Nigeria and Angola export oil to China; South Africa exports precious metals to China. But with lockdowns and other movement restrictions, as factories, restaurants, and shops closed, COVID-19 has slowed down the demand in China for manufacturing and consumer goods, and as a result, imports of such goods into China from Africa may be disrupted or prices may need to be reduced. This might, in turn, lead to production cuts and job losses in African countries.

The second type of COVID-19 impact is a “supply-side” shock. Again, to explain simply, many African (and other) countries import goods that are manufactured in China for use on infrastructure projects, for sales in shops, and much more. With COVID-19, we have seen China slashing its manufacturing, in turn leading to less exports from China to African countries, and/or exports at higher prices. This affects consumer demand in African countries and can lead to the kinds of empty shelves that are being seen in Kenya.

That’s the theory, anyway. But are African economies really in what we call “danger zones” from these two types of COVID-19 shocks in China? Are they all that dependent on China? Based on analysis by our firm, Development Reimagined, and illustrated in the figures below, there is good and bad news.

First, the good news. No African country is in the “danger zone” for both types of COVID-19 economic effects. In other words, African countries will either suffer from reduced exports and commodity prices, or from stalled projects and higher bills at the supermarket and restaurants. The only possible exceptions are Ghana and Madagascar, which lie fairly close to both danger zones.

Furthermore, African countries are unlikely to suffer as much as others. For instance, Asian countries like Vietnam and Philippines, initially forecast by the IMF to grow by over 6 percent in 2020, fall in the danger zones for both types of shocks, and within each zone are worse situated than African countries. On the other hand, countries such as the United States and U.K. are very concerned about their economic vulnerability, and already have slow growth, yet they do not fall into any of the “danger zones.” So the danger zone could be somewhat larger than the cut-off points we have suggested.

But what’s the bad news? The bad news is that out of the 20 countries that do sit in the “danger zones,” 14 of these are least developed countries. That means potentially more poverty in the poorest economies.

In contrast to South Africa, and even Angola and Ghana, least developed countries such as Zambia, South Sudan, and Mauritania, which sit in the demand-side danger zone, do not have alternatives to China as a buyer nor do they have viable alternatives to their commodities for sources of growth. For instance, South Sudan was expected by the IMF to be the fastest growing country in the world in 2020, growing by 8.2 percent, but mainly because of the oil it sends to China. While guarantees for infrastructure financing as payment may reduce South Sudan’s vulnerability, there is a huge risk here, especially if Chinese buyers claim “force majeure” and renege on those guarantees. These are the most challenging cases.

Conversely, while Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana are often thought of as major consumers because of their rising middle classes, none actually feature in the supply-side danger zone. Why? Their economies are relatively diverse. They import from other countries as much as they do from China, and even manufacture domestically, which gives them alternative sources of income and jobs. Smaller countries such as Togo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, and Madagascar, in contrast, don’t have these alternatives. A special case is Rwanda, which also sits in the “danger zone.” It may not suffer as much as the other small economies as its significant GDP growth forecast for 2020 of 8.1 percent was expected to be based on rising domestic manufacturing and investment – this may still occur.

So what does all of this analysis mean? Should the countries “outside the danger zones” like Kenya and Nigeria stop complaining? No. The trade problems they are experiencing are real, and the UN Economic Commission for Africa has also just released analysis confirming this. However, as middle-income countries, it is a realistic proposition that their own governments can and should shoulder the responsibility of identifying the most vulnerable businesses and people within the countries and use all the domestic tools available to help avoid increases in poverty.

In contrast, many of the low-income African countries in the “danger zones” have high percentages of populations in extreme poverty – such as Madagascar with a 75 percent poverty rate. For these countries, international support from all directions – multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, the African Development Bank, high-income countries such as the G7, as well as China itself – is going to be crucial. The list of 14 least developed countries within our “danger zones” could be countries to prioritize.

But what can international partners do? Measures to assist the likes of Mozambique, Zambia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo could include short-term collaborations with the banking sector to help large and small firms manage price falls and avoid high interest rates. For supply-side shock countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and others, measures could include offering short-term loans to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and others in retail sectors to manage price increases for their imported goods and/or source more expensive alternatives from elsewhere. And for all 14 least developed countries, expanded safety nets for healthcare and income will be required to avoid individuals falling further into poverty due to job losses or health expenditures. Finally, in the long-term, as Development Reimagined has also argued elsewhere, more debt – loans – will be critical to help these vulnerable African countries diversify their economies. For instance, funds are needed to build more infrastructure and industries to locally manufacture goods – including medical products – to substitute for imports or generate new value-added exports. This is a no-brainer. It will build resilience and avoid panic in future.

Right now, we at Development Reimagined are still hoping that Africa as a region will prove relatively resilient to COVID-19 in both health and economic terms. But this is not a given, and our initial analysis suggests that effects on poverty may well be exacerbated if governments and development partners only act on the basis of media reports and singular data. Our analysis is just the start to better understanding these effects based on differences between African countries and their relationship with China. We are looking for partners to do more in-depth work to explore the dynamic effects as well as the spillovers now that COVID-19 is spreading to other regions that have a strong trade relationship with African countries. It’s urgently needed. Now is not the time to panic, but to plan ahead carefully, and for governments everywhere to act generously.

Originally published in The Diplomat on March 19th by Hannah Ryder, CEO and Angela Benefo, Research Analyst at Development Reimagined.

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Research Analyst

Edmond is a research analyst who is passionate about sustainable development, innovation, and the environment. Passionate about climate financing, he firmly believe there is a more reliable system to promote equality, growth, and welfare in societies without affecting the ecosystem. Through his skills, knowledge and experienced gained over 7 years, he wants to make an impact in the world of development. Edmond holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Korea Development Institute and a BA Degree (Honors) in Business from University of Derby.


    Founder and CEO

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


Deputy Director

Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.


China-Africa Policy Analyst

Yike Fu is a Policy Analyst and has been responsible for leading numerous areas of work, including on debt analysis in Africa and beyond, and China-Africa trade and investment logistics and analysis. She is the co-author of “African Debt Guide”, in which she challenged the narrative that Africa is in the midst of a new debt crisis by analysing data back to the 1970s and adopting new metrics to present the real story behind the data. She also developed a benchmark to compare the financial distribution of development partners such as the UK, US, Japan, France and China in Africa. Prior to her role at DR she worked at the International Finance Corporation and African Union Representational Mission to the US. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University.


Research Analyst

Judith is a Research and Policy Analyst, where she specialises in Africa-China relations, international development, and diplomacy. During her time at Development Reimagined, Judith has co-authored several articles published in The Diplomat on debt and China-Barbados relations and was quoted by China Daily in a piece on Women Rights in China. Previously, Judith worked as a research analyst for an Advocate and Commissioner and Oats office in Kenya.


Policy Analyst

Ovigwe specialises in geopolitics with particular reference to Africa in a changing Global Order. He is adept at critically analysing the politics of contemporary development processes and providing insight into the geopolitical interests that influence them. His work includes research, publications, tailored briefings and advising on global and regional trends, and issues at the nexus of geopolitics and development. Ovigwe appears frequently in media around the world such as Al Jazeera, TRT World, SABC, CGTN, BBC Radio, and other platforms.


Policy Analyst

Jing leads China-African health and agriculture cooperation research at Development Reimagined, having managed our FOCAC Policy Analysis and Advocacy project. She is also the co-author of “China-Africa Health Cooperation under FOCAC Umbrella”, in which she analysed China’s commitments around health cooperation since the first FOCAC summit and deepdived into four African countries’ health overview, challenges and cooperation with China as cases studies. Before DR, Jing worked at GIZ Cambodia on M&E of a disability advocacy project. She also worked as a translator with Chinese medical team in Benin.


Trade Policy Analyst

Patrick is an International Trade Policy and Trade Law Expert with over 5 years of experience. His expertise includes trade law, trade policy analysis and regional integration. He is currently engaged with Development Reimagined as a Senior Trade Analyst and was the lead author of Development Reimagined's recent Report on Africa-China Relations titled "From China-Africa to Africa- China: A Blue Print for a Green and Inclusive Continent-Wide Strategy Towards China." and “Reimaging FOCAC Going Forward.” Patrick has previously consulted for the East African Community, UNECA and for the Kenya Ministry of Trade.


Senior Policy Analyst 

Rosemary is our Senior Policy Analyst. She is a skilled policy analyst and has previously worked as a UK civil servant. She is studying Human Rights at Birkbeck, University of London with a research focus on international law in the context of health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.


Project Manager and Africa-China Communication Assistant

Jade is a Project Manager for Development Reimagined’s flagship project Africa Unconstrained, which focuses on financing needs and debt vulnerabilities of African countries. Her research focuses on China-Africa development finance alongside debt vulnerabilities, infrastructure needs and South-South cooperation. She has worked with a breadth of stakeholders from China, Africa and the wider international community, including governments, private sector, NGOs and civil society. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Africa Report, The China-Africa Project, The Diplomat and more. Jade holds a Master’s in China and Globalisation studies from King’s College London.


Programme Manager

Rosie is the Project Manager of Africa Reimagined (AR) at Development Reimagined (DR) where she supports high-end African brands with entering the Chinese market by operating services such as trademark protection, Chinese market research, Chinese partnership building, and Africa to China logistical support and import/export services. Rosie has worked with DR for over two years now with proven success in helping high-end African brands navigate the Chinese market. She is extremely passionate about her work because more African brands selling in the Chinese marketplace means African countries can export MORE value-added goods, create MORE jobs and foster MORE innovation in African countries.

Rosie is also alumni of the School of International Studies at Peking University in Beijing where she is also an editor at the Peking Africa Think Tank. PATT is led by a diverse group of scholars who specialise in African Studies within the context of Sino-Africa relations.



Lauren has lived in six countries from the Americas to Europe and Asia and speaks both French and Spanish proficiently. At Development Reimagined, Lauren’s research focuses on climate action both in the Asia-Pacific and in Africa, and how countries are using tools such as SDGs and Covid-19 action to build a more climate-resilient future. She holds a Masters in International Relations from Leiden University.



Etsehiwot holds a Masters’s degree in Development Studies from the London School of Economics. She has diverse experience in humanitarian and development issues by working in both multilateral organizations and international non-governmental organizations. Etsehiwot is currently a consultant focusing on the SDGs and development finance.


Economist Consultant

Dibekulu is an economist by training. He holds an MSc in International Development Studies from Palacky University Olomouc, an MSc in Development Economics from the University of Clermont Auvergne, and an MSc in Economics, Finance, and International Integration from the University of Pavia. At Development Reimagined, he works as an Economist consultant. He has strong data analysis skills, with research interests centring around development finance, impact assessment, food security, and agricultural insurance.


Project Manager

Osaru is a health professional with an MSc in Health Systems Policy and an interest in women’s health and population management. At Development Reimagined, she applies her health sector experience to global health research and collating locally applicable development insights from China.


Research Analyst

Ferdinando’s research at Development Reimagined is centred on South-South Cooperation dynamics, specifically on the analysis of Chinese investment and debt flows in Africa and their linkages to African industrialisation. He is currently a Yenching Scholar at Peking University, after having graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Development Studies.


Research Analyst

David is a Research and data analyst at Development Reimagined. His scholarly focus is mostly on interdisciplinary research in demographic economics and development with interests in migration, economic development and policy, education, health and subjective well-being. He is currently a PhD scholar at Nelson Mandela University from which he also holds Economics and Statistics and respectively.


Research Analyst Kenya

Ivory is a Kenyan lawyer with experience in policy research and analysis. She also supports the communications team at DR. Ivory speaks English, Swahili and French.


Research And Data Analyst China 

Joy Ene is a Research and Data Analyst at DR. Joy is passionate about African/global development, poverty eradication and trade policies between underdeveloped and developing countries. She is also a fourth-year student of International Economics and Trade at the  Liaoning University, Shenyang, China. She serves as the President of the Student Union, Liaoning University, International Students chapter.


Research Analyst 

Chensi Li is a research analyst. She has previously worked for local NGOs in Nigeria and Cameroon and think-tanks in China.  Her research areas include Sino-African relations, African foreign affairs, public diplomacy, state-building and national governance.

Yixin Yu

Research Analyst 

Yixin is a Junior Research Analyst and her focus areas is on public-private partnership and entrepreneurship. She has over three years of working experience in both private and public sectors in Ethiopia. She was the China Liaison Officer for project ‘Partnership for Investment and Growth in Africa’ at International Trade Centre, where she accumulated rich experience in investment and trade promotion


Founder and CEO

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.