But Africa’s growth is not guaranteed, and a critical factor that continues to limit its potential is neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).
This group of parasitic and bacterial infectious diseases limits the lives and livelihoods of 1.7 billion people globally, and one in two people living in Africa. They can cause severe sickness, disfigurement, cognitive and growth impairment, blindness, social isolation, and even death – reason enough for legislators from 24 countries to urge world leaders to prioritize action and investment towards ending NTDs at the G7 Summit hosted by Japan earlier this summer.
NTDs belong on the G7 agenda because they are not only a serious global health concern – they have significant socio-economic impacts too, which stand to impact our collective security and well-being. Building on last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting event that garnered significant political leadership in the fight against NTDs, the urgency of this movement has perhaps never been more pronounced. The recent G7 Nagasaki Health Ministers’ Communiqué elevates the necessary commitments, and we must now translate rhetoric to concrete action through tangible investments centered on community-based solutions.
Those of us already investing in Africa cannot afford to be disengaged in the health of the continent – which must include a focus on eliminating devastating diseases like NTDs. Disability and stigma stemming from these diseases prevent people from working. Children, particularly girls, often drop out of school to help relatives sick or disabled by NTDs. The ripple effects of NTDs keep people, societies, and economies from thriving.
Yet treatments are readily available, often generously donated, and incredibly affordable. NTD treatment has proven to be the single most cost-effective means of improving children’s attendance in school, with deworming initiatives improving attendance by 25%. This improved attendance is estimated to increase earnings later in life by 13% and consumer spending by 14%. At just USD $0.50 per treatment, they are a true global health “best buy.” It is, in fact, more costly to ignore them. With Africa’s working-age population estimated to grow by 70 percent over the next 12 years, and the continent being the fastest urbanizing region in the world, tackling NTDs to improve workforce productivity and create a “health dividend” of healthier and better educated workforces could transform African economies for generations to come.
Aside from the affordability and individual impact of treating NTDs, the return on investment for growing economies is significant. According to research by The Economist Intelligence Unit, every dollar invested in NTD control and elimination is worth between USD $27-$43 in economic return. In a cost-benefit analysis of eliminating NTDs by 2030 in Nigeria alone, Deloitte found that, if successful, Nigeria’s economy could grow by an additional USD $18.9 billion due primarily to citizens’ increased productivity. This is not just morally compelling; it’s economically sound.
My interest in NTDs began six years ago, on a flight from Marseille to London, where I read a special report on NTDs. Reading about diseases like intestinal worms, river blindness, schistosomiasis, elephantiasis, trachoma – words I had not heard since secondary school, and diseases I assumed had long been eliminated – I came to understand that they continue to exact a massive toll on individuals, families, communities, and economies. As I learned more about the direct and consequential effects of NTDs, I realized I could not be professionally interested in African investments without considering this issue.
The scale of the problem and simplicity of the solution makes ending NTDs an attractive investment opportunity. As an investor interested in the prosperity of my continent, this is exactly what led me to join the Board of the END Fund. Reaching over 200 million people in 2022 alone, the END Fund is the primary vehicle for philanthropic investment in NTDs. The fund efficiently puts private capital to work, leveraging drug donations, coordinating with governments, and advocating for national NTD programs with local partners that are innovative, integrated, and cost-effective.
And we have already seen significant progress. To date, 49 countries have eliminated at least one NTD, and others are coming ever closer. In fact, last year Niger became the first country in Africa to eliminate river blindness, a milestone previously considered scientifically impossible.
Together, we can end these debilitating diseases, improve individuals’ productivity and prosperity, and reap the socio-economic benefits of a healthier workforce. If we are serious about African development, we must also be serious about aligning our private and philanthropic portfolios. The human imperative for ending NTDs has long been clear, and now the economic case is too.
Temitope Lawani is the co-founder and Managing Partner of Helios Investment Partners, an Africa-focused private investment firm, and a board member of the END Fund.
**The views expressed in this article are of the author and not the organization Business Insider Africa