Pandemic is a wake-up call for Africa to revive dead industries

Saturday April 18 2020

Prof Thomas Kipkurgat, the Managing Director of Rivatex East Africa displays three-layered masks manufactured at the plant in Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County on April 14, 2020. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NMG


The coronavirus pandemic has illuminated, more than ever before, the urgent need for Africa to build its own industrial capacity.

Within weeks of economic shutdown in China's industrial hubs early this year, the massive ships that dock Africa's coastal harbours were nowhere to be seen.

The frequent cargo and passenger flights between African capitals and China's industrial cities slowed down to a trickle, before most countries announced complete border shutdowns.

Then the reality of shortages began to sink in, exposing the continent’s unsustainably heavy reliance on imported goods—ventilators, faces masks, sanitisers, ICU beds and protective gear.

The need for face masks has suddenly helped to revive Kenya's textile industry, a once thriving sub-sector that is currently a pale shadow of its vibrant past.

Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya have reported innovations in production of ventilators and setting up of ICU facilities in ways not seen before.


Uganda’s Makerere University and Kenya’s Kenyatta University have both announced breakthroughs in production of low-cost ventilators, which are critical in medical care of severe coronavirus infections.

Kenya Medical Research Institute has announced that it also started manufacturing the test reagents.

All these reports amount to a big stamp of confidence in Africa’s ability to innovate and build industries that can help to cut back reliance on imports from the developed and emerging economies.

If every crisis presents an opportunity, then the coronavirus pandemic must be a wake-up call for African countries to revive collapsed industries and build new ones.

Many African countries, including all East African Community members—perhaps with the exception of Rwanda—could count tens of industries that were big employers at the time of independence but are no longer functional.

The case of South Sudan having more vice presidents than their functional ICU beds (only two) perhaps demonstrates best the gigantic task ahead.

The good thing is that African governments do not have to provide the trillions of dollars required to industrialise the continent.

All they need to do is put in place smart policies that can create an attractive environment for investors to build industries and end the imports dependence.
Tax policies, for one, should be focused on promoting local production.

“Buying local” and “supporting local” should shift from being fancy public relations phrases uttered on political platforms to tangible policies that demonstrably promote home-grown entrepreneurs.

Given the already huge capacity gap between Africa and the developed world, it would be important to develop acceptable local quality standards that ensure the safety and reliability of local products.

It would, for example, be impractical to expect that a ventilator assembled by Makerere or Kenyatta University would at the outset match the standards of one produced by a multinational medical equipment manufacturer such as Philips or General Electric.

The regulatory concern, however, would be whether such innovations are safe to use, reliable in multiple settings, scalable and cost efficient.

In other words, it is time for African regulators and standards agencies to develop local marking schemes that enable growth of indigenous industries.

If this aspect is well navigated, today’s African start-ups will become tomorrow’s multinationals.

James Mworia is group chief executive officer at Centum Investment Company Plc Group. @MworiaJ