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Can Africa industralise?

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Can Africa industralise?

A two-day ministerial meeting for African finance, economic and planning ministers jointly organised in late March by the African Union and the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, drew 2,000 delegates to discuss African industrialisation. But can Africa really industralise, or is it just words without action? Wanjohi Kabukuru reports. 

Dr Carlos Lopes, the decorated historian from Guinea Bissau, and Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), delights to talk about Toblerone chocolates whenever he discusses Africa’s development. “Industrialisation is a competitive business. We have to find our own miracle recipe, if we want to become one of the factory floors of the world.” he says.

“Our attractiveness will most likely not be found in producing a Prada wear, a spare part for Ford, or adjusting Apple’s I-phone and introducing it to the Brazilian market. Africa’s attractiveness will be to challenge the view that its coffee has to be Starbucks, its cocoa Toblerone, or its coltan Samsung without any slice of the industrial chain that can also be proudly African.”

The irony of his sentiments lies in Africa’s fixation with raw exports which he terms as “exporting jobs” instead of “creating jobs and wealth in Africa”. 

He loves stroking his trademark stubble. Though he is given to long lectures in campuses, his speeches are surprisingly short and punctuated with engaging humour. In this way, he gains the full attention of his audiences. But where one would expect a booming voice, his is a soft tone. 

For the past two years that Lopes has headed the Addis Ababa-based economic think-tank, UNECA has been on a mission for the continent’s industrialisation which he explains as “economic transformation for better lifestyles for Africans”.

Lopes is a resolute man with a zeal to reposition Africa on the global map as an equal player. He is also a man of deep convictions who cherishes results and detests bureaucracies that hinder progress. 

In his quest, he has built a critical mass of Africa’s major players and like-minded thought-leaders in politics, academia, public service, civil society and the private sector. 

“I think it’s important for us to keep discussing industrialisation,” Lopes says. The UNECA boss knows that getting the continent to industrialise is not going to be easy as it means creating jobs and financing its own rapid development. 

In Lopes’ own words, the conversation currently should not be “Africa rising”, which is turning out to be more of a cliché, but rather Africa’s industrialisation which needs to be defined and anchored in respective national policies. “About two years ago,” he says, “we started hearing about the new ‘Africa rising’ narrative for the continent. If we are serious about the transformation of Africa, we have to define it. You can lose the power and the value of the words by popularising them without a definition behind it.” 

Lopes’ view

In an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the seventh joint African Union and UNECA conference of African ministers of finance, economics and planning held in Abuja in late March, Lopes outlined his vision for the continent.

“For me, transformation is about recomposing Africa’s GDP,” Lopes says, noting that Africa’s GDP in its current form is flawed. “The first thing that is wrong with our GDP is that our agricultural productivity is the lowest in the world and it has not moved a jot in the last 20 years,” Lopes argues. “$15bn just on aid for agriculture in Africa has not moved a finger on agriculture, because we are treating agriculture as a poverty reduction programme, but it is an economic issue.”

The second issue that plagues Africa’s GDP, according to Lopes, is consumption of services tied to the growth of the informal sector, “which basically means people have occupations rather than jobs”. The third factor is manufacturing or value addition in percentage terms, which has been regressing and not growing. 

“Transformation is about changing these three things and recomposing our GDP, and that simply means industrialising. We need high productivity in all sectors, a professional approach with value addition to our agro-business and ensuring our raw materials are not exported raw,” Lopes says. 

When he took over as UNECA boss, he decided to realign the UN agency to be in tandem with Africa’s needs. The 2013 joint UNECA-AU conference of ministers held in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, dwelt heavily on commodity-based industrialisation and attracted 600 delegates. But the 2014 conference decided to go beyond commodity transformation and saw some 2,000 delegates congregate in Abuja, Nigeria, to discuss better industrial policy. 

“We identified that if we are to get people to discuss industrial policy, we have to bring in the discussion as to why it failed in the 1970s. Why has Africa been unable to emulate what happened in Latin America and Asia?

“And since we are all in favour of an organic development, something that grows from within, we have to understand the linkages between industrialisation and a variety of other connecting issues such as nutrition, food security, energy and even central banks,” Lopes says.

According to Lopes, African central banks should pay attention to rural micro-financial markets, influence competitiveness through exchange rate management, strengthen financial intermediation for domestic resource mobilisation, and bring informal financial institutions under formal regulation. 

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