The industrialization of Africa, especially of sub-Saharan Africa, will not occur overnight. This is because industrializing a country or a continent is not like buying a commodity at the supermarket. It is a rather complex process that needs to be holistic. Close to 60 years after the independence of most African countries south of the Sahara (except South-Africa), it appears that industrialization is still a motto, not a reality.
In the 1960’s Africans were already projecting the industrialization of their continent. There are several reasons as to why the African continent has not industrialized; and why it may not industrialize in the future. One of the reasons is that we tend to confuse industrialization with infrastructure development!
It is undeniable that infrastructure development (electricity, transportation systems, etc.) is key to address general development issues in Africa. But building such infrastructures by foreign companies will not make Africa an industrialized continent. For things to change, the African continent must invest heavily in Research & Development, as well as develop the Industrial Ecosystem that will enable African companies to manufacture made in Africa equipment in energy, mining, construction, etc.
The subtlety or the line of demarcation between development and industrialization is that development, in simplistic terms, means building infrastructures, while industrialization means having the competencies (i.e. technology, equipment and human resources) that will enable Africans to build these infrastructures themselves (at least with minimum help from external industrial players). In other words, Africans must control the “industrial value chain”, from mineral extraction to equipment manufacturing in almost all industrial sectors. And there are talented African inventors and innovators – in Africa and in the diaspora – who can help achieve high level strategic goals.
A continent that does not manufacture or produce what its people or corporations consume is not independent. This is why industrialized countries are self-sufficient and able to manufacture their own cars, boats, rockets, bridges, computers, planes, etc. In other words, they have developed a powerful and organized industrial ecosystem even if some industrialized countries have relocated part of their industrial production to countries like China or India where labor cost is cheaper. But the voluntary de-industrialization of these countries does not mean that they don’t know how to manufacture the products or equipment that they have decided to import.
If we deepen the reflection, we would admit that African countries must increase their industrial production. But what kind of industrial production? Building an additional oil refinery in an African country, for instance, will automatically increase the production of refined products. Now, because the refinery is most likely going to be a turnkey plant, when the same country needs another one, a foreign company with foreign technology will be requested. To cut a long story short, a continent that does not design and manufacture its own production units or equipment is not free, is not independent. That’s why industrialization takes time to build: it’s a process!
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