Why Africa’s Industrialization is Still a Mirage

Published on 3rd May 2016

It is time Africans identified the difference between market seeking industries and intrinsic industrialization. When international food, beverage, motor vehicle and information technology companies set foot on African soil, they do so to access domestic markets. Such initiatives do not necessarily lead to industrialization. 

To industrialize, Africa must invest in growing its own productivity character, a form of “African capitalism.” Productivity character requires that Africans patiently study what drives Western and Asiatic industrial powerhouses such as Japan and China. What type of individual and societal habits do these industrial centers exhibit? The Japanese are nurtured to focus on personal reflection and how one connects to the entire society. Amongst the Chinese, man is at the center of all things as long as he is balanced with the universe. The West is driven by the notion of the “original sin” that prompts man to seek to redeem oneself.

Sub-Saharan Africa exhibits a strong sense of extractive entitlement to ethnic and extended family networks. The safety or security provided in ethnicity blunts the thirst of individuals to surface innovation and industry. Safety in extractive entitlement is analogous celebrating the ownership of a big piece of family land but waiting for someone else to develop it. Progress is slow for those who merely celebrate ownership of physical, human and intellectual resources and stop at that.

Can the attitude of the continents’ urbanized folks who are always quick to transform challenges to opportunities evolve “African capitalism?” It is easier to blame thriving industrial centers that thwart the ability of others to surface in order to protect their domestic producers.

Africa has no excuse but learn from China, Japan and other Asian Tigers that have successfully navigated Western roadblocks to industrialize. The continent should adopt the urbanized mindset and forge carefully calculated steps that will lead to rapid modernization by studying the systems of successful economies. This quest should urgently replace the political electoral cycle that is driven by short term focus. Long term strategies should exploit the current dominance by Anglo-American industrial initiatives and the USD $ 10 billion China-Africa Industrial Capacity Cooperation Fund. The West and Asiatic characteristics will not by themselves set Africans on the path of industrialization.  

Africa’s industrialization dream is held back internally by the lack of a competitive “African character.” Imagine if the continent’s 1.2 billion people reversed their sense of extractive entitlement to the over 2,000 ethnic groups and encouraged individual productive obligation to the numerous challenges facing thousands of ethnic groups! The continent would become a bubble chamber of innovations that address ethnic and by extension global challenges.

Intrinsic industrialization requires deliberate and proactive steps to put the African at the center of problem solving. It entails getting rid of the prevalent notion of externalizing all African problems. Collaboration with successful industrialized centers has to be about borrowing tools that will enable Africans fix their problems but not about transfer of industrial units. Transfer of whole industrial units to Africa devoid of growing an African industrial character is likely to breed monuments of failure in the long run.

One can transplant industries to Africa but not industrialization. The responsibility is on Africans to build a unique character that can effectively compete globally. Such a character must address the coziness the continent has with benevolence. Individual Africans’ obligation to society should be to offer solutions to challenges rather than simply seeking “security”   in ethnicity.  The continent’s industrialization remains a mirage as long Africans’ are suffocated by extractive entitlement to ethnic coalitions and external fixers.

By James Shikwati,

The author   james@irenkenya.com is Founder Director of Inter Region Economic Network.

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