Africa's failure to industrialize: bad luck or bad policy?

Author:Page, John

16 December 2014

On 20 November 2014 the United Nations celebrated the 25th Africa Industrialization Day. But perhaps 'celebrate' is not exactly the right word. Africa's experience with industrialization over the past quarter century has actually been disappointing. In 2010, sub-Saharan Africa's average share of manufacturing value added in GDP was 10 per cent, unchanged from the 1970s. At the same time, manufacturing output per person was about a third of the average for all developing countries, and manufactured exports per person about 10 per cent. Thus I pose the question: is Africa's failure to industrialize in the 25 years since the first African Industrialization Day due to bad policy or bad luck?

L2C - Learning to Compete

About four years ago the African Development Bank, the Brookings Institution, and UNU-WIDER came together to try to answer a seemingly simple but puzzling question: why is there so little industry in Africa?

We called our research project 'Learning to Compete (L2C)', because this was the greatest challenge faced by African industry. Among the projects that we sponsored were 11 detailed country case studies--eight from sub-Saharan Africa, one from North Africa, and two from newly industrializing East Asia--done by researchers from the countries involved. The case studies are now available here. They make discouraging reading for anyone interested in African industrialization.

The eight sub-Saharan (SSA) countries--Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda--were all among the region's early industrializers and are also all among the stars of the region's growth turnaround. Tunisia--along with Mauritius, which we did not study in detail--is one of the brighter lights in the African continent's industrialization story. The Asian countries--Cambodia and Vietnam--were chosen because they are emerging Asia's newest industrializers.

The country studies describe the range of public policies used to promote industrial development and the evolution of industry in each country. Most seek to identify the factors that have constrained industrialization and the nature of public actions designed to relieve those constraints. What is striking about the eight SSA countries is that, despite considerable diversity in geographical location, resource endowments, and history, they share remarkable similarity in their experience with industrialization. The Asian and the Tunisian stories begin in very much the...

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