The phrase 'Africa must industrialise' is again in full favour. Every commentator on the continent, national, institutional or individual, is once again convinced that Africa's path to economic salvation lies in industrialisation.
I remember the same cry being made up and down the continent when I first began writing for the pan-African press over 25 years ago and it has resurfaced at regular intervals. Yet, apart from a few isolated examples, the dream of joining the ranks of industrialised nations has remained a dream. (South Africa was already industrialised before majority rule and in North Africa, the process had begun much earlier than further south and is therefore better entrenched).
One does not have to be an economics genius to work out that indeed industrialisation offers the best prospects of sustained growth, job creation and improved standards of living. The question that is much harder to answer is how to industrialise and what type of industrialisation is most suited to both Africa's needs and its abilities.
This is the question on which many policy makers have stumbled. Do you produce for the national market, the regional market or the international market? Do you aim for import substitution or do you concentrate on exports? Do you support your own industries and raise their performance levels or do you invite foreign industrialists to set up shop in your country? Or do you aim for a combination of both?
The other question is do you have the wherewithal to industrialise on a mass scale? What are the minimum basic requirements to support industrialisation? What should be the government's role in this effort and what part should be played by the private sector?
Of course there are no easy answers nor a magic formula that can be applied across the board. Each African country has its own special circumstances, its strengths and weaknesses. Factors such as geography, the prevailing climate, the traditional modes of living, the presence or absence of natural resources, the levels of literacy, the state of the infrastructure, the access or lack of access to markets, the bureaucratic competence, the legal structure, the political and social stability or lack of and, above all, the quality of governance and leadership all play critical roles in whether a country can successfully industrialise or not.
Industrialisation, by its very nature, and particularly so in Africa, involves mixing it up with the world at large and playing by the...