Time for Africa to change strategic partnership with Asia

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with Business Daily on June 26, 2016


Earlier this month the President of South Korea visited Kenya and numerous intentions of bilateral cooperation were articulated including a deal to establish a science and technology centre and other agreements centred on trade, investment promotion, education, sport and culture. It was a shame that industry and manufacturing did not feature very prominently during the visit as Kenya and other African countries can clearly learn from South Korea and other Asian countries on this sector.

Sadly if you look at Kenya’s trading patterns with Asian countries, it’s the continuation of an old story; Kenya exports mainly raw agricultural commodities and imports finished and manufactured goods. Our biggest trading partners are from Asia, specifically India, China and Japan.  It seems as though although Africa is waking up to the need to industrialise, practical partnerships both between governments and between businesses do not exist to catalyse industrialisation on the continent. In short, Africa should shift from calling in Asia to build roads, rails bridges and instead start to focus on partnerships to boost industry and manufacturing.

(source: http://resources.carsguide.com.au/dp/images/uploads/asian-industry-factory-w.jpg)

With China alone due to shed about 85 million jobs at the bottom end of the manufacturing sector between now and 2030, Africa has to shift from the development assistance and infrastructure focused partnerships with Asia and shift to building low end manufacturing on the continent. Yes it is true that the infrastructure base in the continent is poor, but so is the manufacturing and industry base. While infrastructure development is front and centre for Africa right now, manufacturing has not received such prominence. There ought to be a dual focus on infrastructure and industry while working on other aspects of Africa’s landscape particularly with regards to education, land reform and technology absorption and development.

Bear in mind that getting guidance and mentorship from industrialised countries is how much of Asia rose to become the manufacturing giant it is in the world today. For example industrialisation in Japan was a result of many factors but a key factor was the support it got from the USA. Japan’s industrialisation took off in during the Cold War. With the massive communist dragon called China so nearby, the USA made a deliberate effort to build ties with Japan to buffer China’s influence as well ensure capitalism took root in Japan next to a bastion of communism. As a result, some analysts argue that the USA even hollowed out some of its own manufacturing capacity and made deliberate efforts to build Japan’s industrial and manufacturing base and also opened its markets to manufactured Japanese products.  Indeed by 1953, US military procurement from Japan peaked at a level equivalent to 7% of Japan’s GNP.

Although the global context in which Africa seeks to industrialise is very different the core point remains the same; Africa must learn from others and seek to reach out to countries that have successfully industrialised to build this sector on the continent in a very practical manner.  African governments ought to more deliberately bring the issue of industry and manufacturing on the table during any negotiations with Asian countries. We all know that as wages rise in China, Chinese exports will become more expensive and this provides opportunities for manufacturing in Africa. Africa should position itself to do the manufacturing Asia no longer wants to do as their economies sophisticate.

(source: http://resources3.news.com.au/images/2014/04/20/1226890/654895-6c56fdd8-c6d8-11e3-8387-e6d61b132205.jpg)

The path Africa can take can include starting with building low end manufacturing that is not too complex and can absorb what is still largely an under-educated labour force by starting with textiles and other light manufacturing. This can then be displaced by the growth of engineering and chemical industries. I am of the view that the textile assembly that goes on in the Export Processing Zone in Kenya does not count as manufacturing since most of the components of the apparel are imported and are not building Kenya’s textile factories and industry. Thus the point is simple; Africa should call in Asia to help build industry not just infrastructure.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; anzetsew@gmail.com

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