…some remain optimistic that African countries would be beneficiaries of the about 100 million labour-intensive manufacturing jobs expected to exit China to lower cost jurisdictions by 2030… Still, labour-intensive GVCs are increasingly facing disruption from automation.


Is the African Industrialisation Dream Still Feasible?

Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are “demarcated geographic areas contained within a country’s national boundaries where the rules of business are different from those that prevail in the national territory.” Key success factors for SEZs are cheap labour, large domestic markets, proximity to inputs, and high quality infrastructure. Strong institutions and leadership are also considered crucial. The attraction of industrial parks lies in how they enable “delivery-constrained governments” to provide infrastructure needed for industrial development within a “geographically limited space”; something they would not be able to do otherwise. Incidentally, almost all African governments could be considered delivery-constrained.

Global Value Chains (GVCs) involve production over borders – one or more – and now account for two-thirds of global trade. China’s phenomenal industrial revolution was on the back of SEZs and GVCs. When wages in China started to rise, in tandem with the authorities’ desire for higher value-added manufacturing, labour-intensive GVCs moved to neighbouring but less developed Asian countries. Vietnam and Bangladesh account for much of this movement. However, some African countries, especially Ethiopia, have been beneficiaries. And like China, these countries have been able to participate in GVCs via SEZs. SEZs are not without some controversy. Tax concessions to special economic zones deprive governments of revenue, for instance. And it is yet to be proven that there would not have been development in the absence of these special zones in some cases. Still, it is generally agreed that they have been a success in China and emerging Asian countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh.

African SEZs have not been similarly successful. Bad luck and bad policy have been attributed by some as reasons why. Mauritius led the way on SEZs in Sub-Saharan Africa when it set one up in 1971. Since then, many African countries have developed “various forms of special economic zones (SEZs)”, ranging from “export processing zones (EPZ), free trade zones (FTZ), and industrial parks.” With a few exceptions, their performances have thus far not been encouraging.

The World Bank categorises the implementation failures of industrial parks into four. The parks may not be built eventually. If they are built, they could enjoy little custom. In the third category, they could be built and highly subscribed but not yield the expected “cluster effects”. For the fourth category, they could be built, enjoy great custom, produce cluster effects, but have “negative spillovers” and “crowding out” effects. In other words, if successful, they could weigh on “investment climate outside the park”. Still, “park and zone programs continue to proliferate, and many continue to under-deliver.”

…Africa’s relatively cheap labour, or that of any other jurisdiction for that matter, may cease to be an advantage over time. This is because industry may have advanced beyond the need for much labour by the time emerging Asian countries – which in tandem with China currently dominate labour-intensive GVCs – mature.


Industry 4.0 labour saving technologies – “the Internet of Things, advanced robotics, and 3D printing” – are reducing the differentiation role of wages in the production process. Consequently, Africa’s relatively cheap labour, or that of any other jurisdiction for that matter, may cease to be an advantage over time. This is because industry may have advanced beyond the need for much labour by the time emerging Asian countries – which in tandem with China currently dominate labour-intensive GVCs – mature.

FDI into African manufacturing (2016)
Country Investment ($ bln) Market share Investment projects
China 36.1 38.4% 66
United Arab Emirates 11.0 11.7 35
Italy 4.0 4.3% 20
United States 3.6 3.9% 91
Japan 3.1 3.3% 27
United Kingdom 2.4 2.5% 41
France 2.1 2.2% 81

Source: Ernst & Young; Signe (2018)

Nonetheless, some remain optimistic that African countries would be beneficiaries of the about 100 million labour-intensive manufacturing jobs expected to exit China to lower cost jurisdictions by 2030. And there is evidence of increased Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) into African manufacturing. In 2016, China invested in 66 African manufacturing investment projects worth $36 billion. With a 38 per cent market share, China is the lead foreign investor in African manufacturing. Only a year before, the highest manufacturing FDI into Africa came from the United States. Still, labour-intensive GVCs are increasingly facing disruption from automation.

Rafiq Raji, a writer and researcher, is based in Lagos, Nigeria. Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji