The world’s most formidable light-manufacturing machine, China, has traced a rich curriculum from which sub-Saharan Africa can learn. Chinese industrialisation is largely run by private entrepreneurs and is home to hundreds of millions of jobs. In two decades, the country’s share of global manufacturing exports rose from nearly zero to 15 per cent, and if you were to count only labour-intensive products, it counts for over 30 per cent.
So what lessons can African policymakers learn from the oriental industrial giant?
For one, China integrated itself globally, regionally and sub-nationally, by opening up borders both within and internationally. This facilitated foreign investment, new technologies, and knowledge of what other societies like and want to buy. It also called for fluid trade with countries in the immediate South-East Asian neighbourhood, to form “value chains” whereby final products are assembled from components manufactured within reach.
And of course, within China, people, capital, and ideas went wherever new export industries demanded them—primarily to the coastal areas. That kind of multidimensional integration of trade corridors seldom exist in Africa. African regions have grown in globalisation—selling commodities to other regions—but have not succeeded at “continentalisation,” that is, at letting goods and services flow from one African country to another.
It remains a highly fragmented place, even in basic industries like food. For instance, only 10 per cent of an average African country’s exports go to another African country; the equivalent number in South-East Asia is more like 40 per cent. In other words, Africa must first defragment itself if it wants to industrialise.
Secondly, the Chinese government became an unwavering promoter of export-oriented private investment. Although not every project was effective, profitable, or easy to administer transparently, the single-mindedness of it became a magnet for private investors. Few African countries today can show that kind of strategic clarity. Even fewer have achieved a level of government decentralisation where local officials have the power, the means, or the institutional capacity to lead development policy. Devolution remains a pending agenda.