How to promote African factories

A sub-Saharan industrial revolution need not be a pipe dream


FEW BUILDINGS symbolise the rise and fall of manufacturing in South Africa better than the old General Motors plant in Gqeberha (previously Port Elizabeth). During apartheid the factory was sheltered from international competition by sanctions and tariffs. Now its vast silvered assembly halls stand bare. It was closed in 2017, an emblem of South Africa’s car industry, which shed almost one in four jobs between 2009 and 2017. That is typical of a wider decline of manufacturing across the continent. In 1975-2014 manufacturing’s share of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa fell from 19% to 11%.

很少有建筑比通用汽车在格贝哈(Gqeberha,原伊丽莎白港 [Port Elizabeth])的旧工厂更能象征南非制造业的兴衰。在种族隔离时期,这家工厂因南非受到制裁和关税保护而免于国际竞争。如今它那些巨大的银白色装配车间里已空无一物。它于 2017 年关闭,是南非汽车工业的缩影,该行业在 2009 年至 2017 年间裁员近四分之一。这是整个非洲制造业普遍衰退的典型表现。1975 年至 2014 年,撒哈拉以南非洲地区制造业占 GDP 的比重从 19% 下降到 11%。

This collapse has plenty of causes. In countries such as Zambia, firms were nationalised and run into the ground by bureaucrats. In resource-rich places such as Nigeria exports of oil or other commodities led to an overvalued local currency, making it cheaper to import things than make them. As much of the continent opened up to imports in the 1990 s, manufacturers struggled to hold their own against hyper-competitive Chinese firms with the scale to drive down costs.

这种衰落有很多原因。在赞比亚等国家,企业都国有化了,被官僚们经营得一团糟。在像尼日利亚这样资源丰富的地方,出口石油或其他大宗商品导致本币估值过高,使得从国外进口商品比自己生产更便宜。上世纪 90 年代,随着非洲大陆大部分地区放开进口,本地制造商很难招架中国企业的攻势,后者通过规模压低成本,具有超强的竞争力。

In 2015 Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard, wrote of “premature deindustrialisation” in Africa. The continent seemed to be missing out on an important means of boosting productivity and creating jobs. The ladder that hundreds of millions of Asians had climbed up out of poverty had been taken away just as Africans were putting a foot on the first rung, some feared. Since by around 2035 there will be more young people joining the workforce in Africa than in the REST of the world combined, it matters whether this idea is right.

2015 年,哈佛大学的经济学家丹尼・罗德里克(Dani Rodrik)曾撰文探讨非洲「过早地去工业化」。非洲大陆似乎错失了一条提高生产率和创造就业的重要途径。有人担心,那条曾让数亿亚洲人爬出贫困沼泽地的梯子在非洲人刚踏上第一级时就被撤走了。到 2035 年前后,非洲加入劳动力大军的年轻人数量将超过世界其他地区的总和,因此,这种看法正确与否非常重要。

Thankfully, newer data suggest it is not. Sub-Saharan Africa’s manufacturing slump bottomed out in the 2000 s. Since 2010 the number of workers in African factories has steadily risen. So has factory output. Worries about deindustrialisation now look as if they are premature.

所幸,最新数据表明情况并非如此。撒哈拉以南非洲的制造业衰退在 21 世纪的头十年达到了最低点。自 2010 年以来,非洲工厂里的工人数量稳步上升。工厂产出也是如此。目前看来,对去工业化的担忧本身似乎倒是为时过早了。

Many African leaders are eager to promote manufacturing, partly to avoid dependence on volatile commodities and partly because their countries have found it so frustratingly hard to import medical supplies quickly enough during the pandemic. To get the best results, they should start by learning from past failures. That means avoiding nationalising companies, subsidising national champions or raising import barriers to cosset home-grown industries. Many leaders are wisely embracing a continent-wide free-trade agreement that came into force this year. It offers hope: a mattress-maker in landlocked Rwanda is more likely to grow by winning orders in next-door Congo than in far-off Japan.


Yet it is not enough for African governments to do no harm. Companies also need reliable power, educated workers and good infrastructure to improve productivity. Since hard choices are inevitable, governments should pick investments that diversify away from commodities. This would mean building ports with roads to industrial areas rather than to mines in the middle of nowhere. Some governments are giving tax incentives to companies in a bid to break into prestigious industries like carmaking. They might do better to focus on easier targets, such as processing food for local stomachs, or making dull products like packaging for neighbouring countries.


If infrastructure and governance improve, more firms may choose to build factories in Africa to make components for global supply chains using parts from local suppliers. Industrialisation in Africa will not look the same as it did in Asia. Circumstances are different, and technology has moved on. But the notion that Africa has missed out on manufacturing seems to be mistaken. With better policies, its firms can find a path.


Published since September 1843 to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”


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