Africa’s COVID-19 medical supplies trade: January-June 2020
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic brought an unprecedented demand for medical products (COVID-19 medical supplies) required to curb the spread of the virus. COVID-19 medical supplies include products such as personal protective equipment, gloves, laboratory reagents, breathing appliances support including ventilators, masks for medical oxygen, surgical or laboratory sterilisers and disinfectants as well as test kits. In most countries domestic demand for pharmaceuticals and medical products outstrip supply, necessitating imports to meet demand.
However, imports were constrained due to several countries imposing export prohibitions or restrictions on COVID-19 medical supplies to meet their local demand. In April 2020, the World Trade Organization reported that about 80 countries and customs territories had banned or restricted the export of COVID-19 supplies in order to prevent potential shortages for their own use. In March 2020, South Africa also imposed COVID-19 export control regulations which only allowed exports of COVID-19 related products if accompanied with an export permit. These export bans and restrictions created shortages in some import-reliant countries. The pandemic, the resultant surge in demand for some pharmaceuticals and medical products and the consequent export restrictions highlights the need to enhance domestic pharmaceutical productive capacity and the importance of international trade of certain medical related products. In June 2020, the African Union launched the Africa Medical Supplies Platform adopted ‘as a single online marketplace to enable the supply of COVID-19-related critical medical equipment in Africa.’
This blog provides an analysis of Africa’s COVID-19 medical supplies trade for first six months of 2020 using the available data of the ITC TradeMap database.
Between January and June 2020, China was the largest world exporter of COVID-19 medical supplies (despite the country’s data for January and February 2020 being unavailable). China exported 15 per cent of world exports of COVID-19 medical supplies – even though its exports of medical supplies plummeted by 15 per cent between January and February 2020. Germany was the second largest world exporter (13 per cent of world exports) followed by the United States (US) (11%), Switzerland (10%), Netherlands (7%), Ireland and Belgium (6% each), Italy and France (4% each), the United Kingdom (3%), and Japan (2%).
Table 1 shows the data for the top 10 world exporters and their top 3 destination market in Africa. Data for China’s January and February exports of COVID-19 medical supplies to Africa is not available, hence it is not included in Table 1.
Table 1: Top 10 world exporters and their top 3 African destination markets (January-June 2020)
Main world exporter
(exports to Africa as % of world exports by the designated country)
Africa destination markets
(% of exports to Africa)
Germany (1% of Germany’s world exports of COVID-19 medical supplies were to African countries)
South Africa (33%)
South Africa (35%)
South Africa (9%)
South Africa (18%)
South Africa (23%)
South Africa (47%)
South Africa (18%)
United Kingdom (1%)
South Africa (33%)
South Africa (16%)
Source: ITC TradeMap (2020) and tralac calculations
Most African countries’ data on COVID-19 medical supplies trade between January and June 2020 is not yet available. Only 8 African countries reported their COVID-19 medical supplies exports to the rest of the world between January and March 2020. During this period, Africa’s total exports of COVID-19 medical supplies amounted to approximately US$712 million. South Africa was the largest exporter (89% of Africa’s total exports valued at US$634 million) followed by Kenya (5%), Mauritius (2%), Eswatini and Togo (1%), Madagascar (0.4%), and Mozambique (0.02%).
Between April and June 2020, Africa’s total exports of COVID-19 medical supplies amounted to approximately US$422 million. Only 5 countries – South Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar, Eswatini and Burkina Faso have reported their export data for these three months, exporting 92%, 4%, 2%, 1% and 0.2% of Africa’s total exports of COVID-19 medical supplies, respectively. The export percentages referred to herein are calculated based on the total African data provided in respect of COVID-19 medical supplies by the ITC TradeMap database.
Between January and June 2020, intra-Africa exports of COVID-19 medical supplies were valued at about US$394 million. Four countries have reported exports of COVID-19 supplies, January-June 2020. They are South Africa (exported 83%); Mauritius (exported 3%), Madagascar (0.4%), and Burkina Faso (0.3%).
South Africa exported mainly to Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. The top products exported by South Africa to other African countries are medicaments; diagnostic or laboratory reagents on a backing, prepared diagnostic or laboratory reagents, and instruments and appliances used in medical, surgical or veterinary sciences.
South Africa’s exports of COVID-19 medical supplies significantly decreased between March and April following the introduction of the COVID-19 export control regulations, which restricted the export of COVID-19 medical supplies.
Between January and June 2020, Africa’s total imports of COVID-19 medical supplies amounted to approximately US$2.7 billion. China, India, US, Germany, France were the main sources of COVID-19 medical supplies imported by Africa – (accounting 26%, 16%, 11%, 8% and 6% of Africa’s world COVID-19 medical supplies imports, respectively).
The intra-African trade of COVID-19 medical supplies are not all reported consistently. While some countries have reported their imports from African trade partners, of COVID-19 medical supplies for January-June 2020 (e.g. South Africa, Burkina Faso, Mauritius and Madagascar), others have only reported from January to May (e.g. Eswatini), and some others only have January to March data available (e.g. Kenya, Mozambique and Togo).
Of the countries that have reported, South Africa was the largest importer of COVID-19 medical supplies, importing 76 per cent of Africa’s total imports. Burkina Faso imported 5 per cent, Mauritius 4 per cent, and Madagascar 3 per cent.
Between January and March 2020, Africa’s total imports of COVID-19 medical supplies were valued at about US$1.2 billion. South Africa was still the largest importer, importing 64 per cent of Africa’s total imports. Kenya imported 15 per cent, Burkina Faso 5 per cent, Mauritius and Mozambique 4 per cent each, Madagascar 3 per cent, and Eswatini and Togo 2 per cent each.
Nine African countries reported some of their intra-Africa import data of the COVID-19 medical supplies for the period studied namely January to June 2020. South Africa, Burkina Faso, Madagascar and Mauritius have reported their full data for the said period, importing 15 percent, 12 per cent, 10 per cent and 9 per cent of intra-Africa imports of the medical supplies, respectively.
Between January and March 2020, intra-Africa imports of COVID-19 medical supplies amounted to US$58 million. Kenya was the largest importer, importing 21 per cent of intra-Africa imports of COVID-19 medical supplies, followed by Mozambique (20%), Eswatini (18%), South Africa and Madagascar (8% each), Burkina Faso (7%), Mauritius (6%), and Togo (2%). These countries imported mostly medicaments, undenatured ethyl alcohol of actual alcoholic strength of >= 80%.
From the available data, one can see that African countries traded more with the world than they did with their African counterparts. This is due to low productive capacity of COVID-19 medical supplies on the continent. Most African countries do not produce a lot of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies. There is definitely scope to develop pharmaceutical production capacities and addressing non-tariff barriers to trade in Africa. The Africa Medical Supplies Platform is no doubt a laudable initiative, but it will be more impactful when most of the products available on it and distributed through it originate from the African pharmaceutical industry.
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