This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on August 6, 2017
Kenya is an import economy; we import just about everything from garlic and oranges to construction materials and heavy industrial machinery. The general view, which I largely accept, is that an import economy constrains economic growth and development due to several reasons. The first is that, an import economy dampens the ability of local manufacturing to meet the needs of the local market; instead foreign nations meet the country’s needs. As a result, imports lock out local manufacturers from benefitting from domestic demand. Secondly an import economy essentially creates a situation where domestic demand generates jobs and income for foreign countries. As a result, local job creation is muted because the market has been captured by foreign entities.
That said, since Kenya is an import economy it is important to find means through which the situation can be leveraged for economic growth as there are some benefits to the status quo. The first is that an import economy creates market capture that can be exploited by domestic industry. In being an import economy, it is clear which products Kenyans buy and the related market size for each product type can be easily estimated. This provides a basis on which government can launch effective import-substitution strategies as there is a sure bet market to which local industry can sell if their goods are of similar use, quality and value.
Secondly, innovation is garnered through imports. As an import economy, the country gets a clear sense of the new ideas as well as the standards and features that sell in domestic, regional and international markets. When a Kenyan buys a snack made in Italy, it provides local snack manufacturers an opportunity to see the quality of snacks that garner an international market. Thus imports provide a source of innovation and standards that can be emulated by local manufacturers.
Thirdly, because an import economy is flooded with products from around the world, it provides an opportunity to create export-oriented manufacturing where local manufacturers learn about what products sell regionally or internationally. Thus imports provide the foundation for creating a manufacturing sector that is export-oriented. Through learning about standards and innovation in the point elucidated above, local manufactures have a clear idea of what sells on the international market. Thus, through the analysis of imports, government can determine priority industries in the country and track imports in those industries to get a clear idea of what type and quality of product can be the foundation for the country’s on own export push for manufactured products.
Thus imports can be leveraged for both import-substitution AND export- orientation strategies; the two are not mutually exclusive. However, the negative effect of imports can only be mitigated if there is deliberate effort both from government and manufacturers to exploit the gains that imports provide. In doing so, Kenya can transition from being a country reliant on imports to one where local manufacturers regain domestic market share and also build export capacity and sales.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in my weekly column with Business Daily on Apri1 19, 2015
Industrialisation is often touted as the answer to development in Kenya and Africa as a whole. Industrialisation here refers to the process in which a country transforms itself from a society based on primarily agricultural and natural resource extraction into one based on manufacturing of goods.
There is already indication that the government is grappling with the issue of industrialisation as seen in a proposal, made a few weeks ago, to end the importation of second-hand clothes and vehicles. The argument is that imports should be curtailed in order to foster industrialisation in the East African Community (EAC).
This is import-substitution industrialisation, which is essentially a trade and economic policy which advocates replacing foreign imports with domestic production premised on the notion that the region should attempt to reduce its foreign dependency through local production of industrialised products.
This has been a dominant theme in development economics targeting mass poverty and increasing productivity within a given country or region. It is an inward-looking economic theory focused on bringing developing countries into the prosperity of industrialised nations.In all fairness, this position makes sense in some ways; the intention of ushering in development and self-sufficiency by moving beyond agriculture and natural resource extraction through subsidising vital industries is laudable.
As it stands, non-industrialised countries such as Kenya are dependent on industrialised ones because they have no alternative but to buy manufactured goods which lead to a vicious cycle. Further, industrialisation can be a useful link between rural and urban areas where the outputs of one feeds into the inputs of the other. Successful industrialisation also relies on efficient and functional transport and communications systems. Industrialisation can also lead to creation of better links between rural and urban areas as well as improve transport and communications.
It can also improve Kenya’s export profile, which is a trade deficit country. Indeed, Kenya recorded a trade deficit of Sh86,484 million in January 2015 alone. Industrialisation can also play an important role in creating products which meet domestic needs can be exported to earn forex.
In terms of function, industrialisation forces companies to compete with international competitors in terms of quality and price. At the moment EAC governments are seeking to facilitate industrialisation by banning imports of second-hand goods. The upside to this is that it allows new industries the time and space to get their formula right. Yet a ban on imports means that inefficiencies and sub-standard goods will be allowed to flourish, limiting choice and forcing consumers to buy expensive goods of potentially low quality.
Not only is this against the poor but it can also lead to industrialisation supported by protectionist government policy which can cultivate a culture of mediocrity. Industrialisation also poses additional challenges such as whether Kenya has the following: a variety of raw materials to produce finished goods, a constant supply of affordable energy, a large number of engineers, a dependable supply of both skilled and unskilled workers as well as capital goods and money for investment.
Further, the creation of by-products and waste has to be carefully managed to avoid chronic, dangerous pollution from becoming the norm. As Kenya eyes industrialisation as a catalyst for economic development, a cost-benefit analysis must be done to determine how it can be structured to spur sustainable development.
Ms Were is a development economist. email@example.com, twitter: @anzetse