Why time could be Africa’s biggest manufacturing challenge

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For years, experts have been pointing towards manufacturing as an essential drive of African economies. Deemed integral to the “awakening giant” predictions, manufacturing is expected to do similar things for Africa as it has done for China’s impressive economic rise to power.

Africa has a lot of the essential ingredients to follow a similar manufacturing roadmap, too. It certainly has the natural resources to power a “made in Africa” movement. It also has the promising combination of a booming population and relatively low wages that major manufacturers adore.

Despite all this – and so many other strengths in Africa’s favour – manufacturing across the continent isn’t living up to the expectations many have expressed in the past. The industry’s contribution to African GDPs is shrinking and the same challenges that existed a decade ago are everpresent today.

The question is: why? Clearly, Africa’s manufacturing challenges aren’t going to disappear overnight and expecting them to is asking for too much. The world is ready for an African manufacturing powerhouse but the continent itself needs more time. Which could be the biggest issue of all that’s holding back the “made in Africa” dream.

No quick answers to Africa’s manufacturing challenges

The thing with Africa’s manufacturing challenges is they are complex – and they’re not unique to manufacturing either. A difficult mix of political, social and industrial hurdles stunt the growth of African development in various other areas, too.

The following list of concerns looks very familiar:

  • Political stability
  • Security
  • Economic strategy
  • Corruption
  • Infrastructure
  • Education and work skills
  • Technology adoption
  • Regional integration
  • Trade deals and access to markets

There’s a fairly linear progression running through that list, too. Political instability tends to breed insecurity, taking the attention away from economic strategy and combating corruption. Which all has a knock-on effect with infrastructure, educations and countless other factors.

Manufacturing issues aside, tackling most of Africa’s development issues needs to start from the top. Sadly, when you look at the political environment across the continent, there’s a lot of progress to be made before this can happen.

It doesn’t end with politics, though

While you could argue politics is the place to start with tackling Africa’s manufacturing issues, suggesting it’s the only problem is an oversimplification of challenges that exist.

Africa’s booming population can certainly be a strength for its manufacturing ambitions but it could also become a noose. Growing strain on education systems across the continent bring the prospect of a larger uneducated youth that lacks the skills needed in the workplace.

The challenge becomes even more complex as manufacturing technology advanced. How Africa will find the balance between reducing manufacturing costs with technology and using the industry as a major source of employment remains to seen.

Then we have the environmental factors to consider. Africa can’t afford to follow the Chinese blueprint that sacrificed the Asian country’s environment for the sake of economic progress. Africa will have to do what no other region has done before it; industrialise rapidly on a major scale while it heals its deteriorating environment. That’s a huge ask and there’s no existing gameplan on how to make that happen.

Can African do enough, quickly enough?

The good news is that, once you dig into the data, African manufacturing isn’t struggling as much as many like to make out. It’s true that most of the same issues that existed a decade ago are still unresolved. However, expecting things to change too quickly is naive. Dangerous, even.

Rapid development isn’t going to work for Africa in the same way it has done for China, Singapore and South Korea. Asia is feeling the side-effects of rapid development and African nations need to find a more sustainable approach. The political environment across Africa isn’t ready for that kind of approach either. China, Singapore and South Korea brought economic success through iron-fist regimes. And, while you could imagine similar things taking place in countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia, the fragile politics of South Sudan, the DRC and many other nations are far too insecure to follow the same model.

Either way, Africa needs to find its own sustainable way to make the manufacturing dream come true. The reality foreign investors probably don’t want to hear is that it will take time and patience to make it happen.

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About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.