As governments in Africa start to ease lockdown restrictions and reopen local economies, chief financial officers (CFOs) are focusing on plans to provide a safe working environment for their employees and ensure that this safety can be sustained throughout the Covid-19 crisis and recovery.

This is according to PwC’s latest Covid-19 CFO Pulse Survey: Africa findings, which surveyed 867 CFOs from 40 countries during the week of 4 May 2020, including 55 CFOs from nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

The survey is the fifth in a rolling series and the first to include a report on findings in Africa.

Even as restrictions slowly continue to lift in some countries and territories, the economic fallout of the crisis is widespread. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that economic activity in sub-Saharan Africa will decrease by 1,6% this year, with oil-exporting countries in the region expected to contract by an average of 2,8%.

Dion Shango, CEO for PwC Africa, says: “As finance leaders adapt to the changes and challenges that have emerged as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are beginning to shift their focus to a more prolonged recovery period.

“Ensuring a safe workplace is taking precedence as economies reopen and stabilising the supply chain remains critical to ongoing business continuity.

“As they manage this process, business leaders will be faced with a series of decisions that will have a far-reaching impact: on their own financial future; on the wellbeing of their employees, customers and other stakeholders; and on society at large,” says Shango. “As new recovery milestones are reached, we’ll continue to monitor how CFOs react and respond.”

Key findings from the survey relating to Africa include:

* Revenues: Times are tough for business and few envisage the coming months will be much easier, with most African CFOs (89%) expecting a reduction in revenue this year. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of African CFOs predict a decline of at least 10% in their company revenue and/or profit this year. Just like their global counterparts, more than half of CFOs expect a decrease of up to 25% in revenue as a result of Covid-19.

* Cost containment: Businesses are actively dealing with the effects of a sharp decline in economic activity and even temporary closure of their operations. In this environment it is no surprise that African CFOs are taking decisive action to safeguard their financial positions, with 85% (compared to 81% globally) saying that businesses are implementing cost containment measures or deferring or cancelling planned investments (Africa: 60%; Global: 60%).

* Business recovery: Although 38% of African CFOs believe their company could return to ‘business as usual’ within three months if Covid-19 were to end today, there is a growing sentiment in many territories that recovery may take much longer. Overall, 42% of African CFOs expect it to take more than six months, while almost one in ten (9%) expect it will take more than a year to restore their businesses. Overall, global respondents are more optimistic than African CFOs about how quickly they can re-establish ‘business as usual’ in their organisations.

* Supply chains: When it comes to changing supply chains, 51% of CFOs cite developing alternate sourcing options as the most pressing area, led by Africa (64%) and Turkey (63%).

* Cost containment: African CFOs clearly favour a strategy of cost containment, with the majority focusing on facilities and general capital expenditure (Africa: 82%; Global 83%) followed by investments in the workforce (Africa: 52%; Global: 49%) and operations (Africa: 36%; Global: 53%). CFOs in Africa say they are less likely thank their global peers to be considering cancelling or deferring investments in operations, IT, R&D and customer experience. In addition, only 15% of African CFOs (Global: 16%) are considering deferring or cancelling investments in digital transformation.

* Protection for employees: African CFOs (Africa: 91%; Global: 76%) are considering workplace safety measures and requirements such as masks and testing, and 65% (Global: 65%) say they’ll reconfigure work sites to promote physical distancing.

* Responding to changing needs: As companies and employees take action to respond to the pandemic, nearly half (45%) of African CFOs expect productivity loss due to lack of remote work capabilities, compared to an overall average of 33%. More than a third (35%) of African CFOs expect changes in staffing due to low demand and are considering temporary leave or furloughs. Compared to an overall average of 29%, 18% of African CFOs also expect to conduct lay-offs in the next month.

* Reimagining the workplace: It is notable that more African CFOs (62% vs 48% globally) say they will be accelerating automation and new ways of working once they transition back to ‘normal’. Given the need to limit the number of people in close contact, 60% (compared to 49% globally) are considering making remote work a permanent option where feasible.

* Keeping customers and employees safe: Overall, CFOs in Africa are more optimistic than the overall average, with more than three-quarters saying they are very confident about meeting customers’ safety expectations (Africa: 76%; Global:75%); providing a safe working environment for their employees (Africa: 76%; Global: 70%) and retaining critical talent (Africa: 78%; Global: 61%).

All over the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has elevated the importance and the need for new skills, including empathetic leadership, resilience and agility, collaboration and digital skills, and technical and trade skills such as design, manufacturing, and cyber and supply chain management.