This article first appeared in my column with the Business Daily on August 30, 2015
There are a couple things happening in China right now that Africa should be looking at very keenly. We won’t talk about Black Monday here because what happens on the Chinese stock exchange does not necessarily directly speak to the impact China’s economy has on Africa. Let’s talk about what really matters for Kenya and the continent.
Firstly, the structure of the Chinese economy is changing; China has been undergoing a shift from heavy industry to services. In fact The Economist states China’s, ‘services sector supplanted manufacturing a couple of years ago as the biggest part of China’s economy, and that trend has only accelerated this year’. This has massive implications for Africa which has benefitted immensely from the commodity hunger from China, particularly for commodities from the extractives sector. How will Africa be affected? Well, while some countries such as Nigeria seem to be weaning their economy from an over-reliance on oil, other African countries such as South Sudan, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, DRC, Gabon and Angola still rely heavily on oil exports even for national budget formulation. Thus, Africa can expect continuing downward momentum from China in terms of a demand for such commodities and thus reduced revenues.
The wane in commodity demand from China is set to have a series of effects on African economies. For example, sovereign bond issues from oil-exporting African countries which still rely heavily on such exports for public revenue generation should be approached with caution not only because of waning demand but obviously also due to lowering oil prices. Investors should look at the overall export profile of a country before making a decision to invest. Further, countries such as Kenya and much of East Africa, which are set to become oil producers in the near future can expect oil ventures to be significantly less profitable than was the case a few years ago. Not only does demand from countries such as China seem to be waning, there is a decline in oil prices and a definite shift in much of EuroAmerica towards renewables. Such factors mean that the previous assumption that ‘oil= healthy revenue’ popular in the minds of many African governments is being challenged in an unprecedented manner. One need only look to Ghana to see the pitfalls that abound when a country overestimates projected revenue from oil sales.
Secondly is the devaluation of the yuan; the recent devaluation should be perceived as a mixed bag for Africa. On one hand, for an import country like Kenya, the devaluation of the yuan is frankly a sigh of relief in what has been a very bleak import outlook in the context of the depreciating Kenya Shilling. A look at Kenya’s import profile reveals that, by far, Kenya’s largest share of imports come from Asia with China leading the way particularly in capital and consumer goods. Thus the yuan devaluation is one bright spot in what has seemed like an unending rise in import bills. The flip side of this equation however is that a weaker yuan may make African countries deepen an already deep reliance on Chinese imports making them more sensitive to volatility in the Chinese economy. However, the devaluation of the yuan is already being seen to put depreciating pressure on the Kenya Shilling which would make imports from other parts of the world more costly for the country. This is a reality Kenya simply cannot afford as it would exacerbate current account deficit pressure.
Finally, there is another shift occurring in the Chinese economy from being a predominantly export economy to one more reliant on domestic consumption. Wages have risen as millions of Chinese have reaped dividends from economic growth in which millions of Chinese were pulled out of poverty. Thus overall, Chinese have more disposable income to purchase finished goods. This shift from export reliance to local consumption seems to be part of an on-going overhaul that has perhaps been informed by the decline in exports from China after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09. It would be no surprise to surmise that China wants to buffer itself from the vulnerability of external demand. This, however, leaves Africa with a series of questions: Which country will now become the dominant absorber of African commodities? Can Africa manufacture goods of sufficient quality to appeal to the Chinese market? Where will commodity-reliant countries source alternative revenue now that this shift in China is happening? Further, who will be the next ‘world factory’? Africa?
Thus, there is good reason for Africa to keep an eye on China, if for nothing else, to see how Africa can make the most use of on-going shift in China’s economy.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; email: anzetsew@gmailcom