“Name any country in Africa, and I could have found a world-class firm there a decade ago,” says John Page of the Brookings Institution, a think tank, the co-author of a forthcoming book on African manufacturing. “The problem is, two years later, I’d go back and still find just the one firm. In Cambodia or Vietnam, I would go back and find 50 new ones.”
To be sure, many countries deindustrialise as they grow richer (growth in service-based parts of the economy, such as entertainment, helps shrink manufacturing’s slice of the total). But many African countries are deindustrialising while they are still poor, raising the worrying prospectthat they will miss out on the chance to grow rich by shifting workers from farms to higher-paying factory jobs.
Thi is not just happening in Africa—other developing countries are also seeing the growth of factories slowing, partly because technology is reducing the demand for low-skilled workers. “Manufacturing has become less labour intensive across the board,” says Margaret McMillan of Tufts University. That means that it is hard, and getting harder, for African firms to create jobs in the same numbers that Asian ones did from the 1970s onwards.
Yet deindustrialisation appears to be hitting African countries particularly hard. This is partly because weak infrastructure drives up the costs of making things. The African Development Bank found in 2010 that electricity, a large cost for most manufacturers, costs three times more on average in Africa than it does even in South Asia. Poor roads and congested ports also drive up the cost of moving raw materials about and shipping out finished goods.
Africa’s second disadvantage is, perversely, its bounty of natural riches. Booming commodity prices over the past decade brought with them the “Dutch disease”: economies benefiting from increased exports of oil and the like tend to see their exchange rates driven up, which then makes it cheaper to import goods such as cars and fridges, and harder to produce and export locally manufactured goods.
Excerpt from Industrialisation in Africa: More a marathon than a sprint, Economist, Nov. 7, 2015, at 41