Africa can replace Asia as the world's factory floor. Having established one of Africa's biggest shoe factories, businesswoman Helen Hai knows how.
I first met Helen Hai earlier this year during a conference in Accra organised by the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET) and Ghana's National Development Planning Commission. Ghana had just launched its own Economic Transformation Agenda, and ACET had invited four other African countries to share their experiences, as well as Hai, to discuss the prospects of accelerating Africa's industrialisation.
In some circles, Hai is talked about with a sense of awe. In Ethiopia, she set up one of the biggest shoe manufacturing plants in sub-Saharan Africa before helping establish a garment export factory in Rwanda --all in record time.
In Accra, when the youthful, petite and bubbly woman was introduced to me as Helen Hai, I was a little taken aback. Given her achievements, I had expected someone more formidable looking who would be able to immediately win the respect of all those around them. But I needn't have worried. Hai shook hands vigorously, found something amusing to say to everybody and, like an excited schoolgirl on her first visit to a foreign country, asked countless questions about everything; in no time at all, she had won over everyone--an essential quality in any business leader.
On the Tigers' tail
Manufacturing for export is the basis on which Asia's economic transformation has been built. But the question for African countries is whether, coming so late to the field, they can hold their own in this same cutthroat environment.
Helen Hai certainly thinks they can. In fact, she believes that Africa can become the next "factory floor" of the world and has shown how it can be done.
"I came to Ethiopia in October 2011 as vice-president and general manager of the Huajian shoe factory," she says. "Three months after first putting my feet on Ethiopian soil, we were ready to export to the demanding and high-income market in the US. Six months later, I had doubled Ethiopia's export revenue in the shoes sector. By month 12,1 had hired 2,000 local workers; by month 24,1 had hired 3,500 local workers."
The unlikely experiment turned out well. So well, in fact, that Huajian is planning an additional investment of $2bn. This will take the workforce to over 30,000, turning the enterprise into one of the single biggest manufacturing outfits in the Global South.
Success breeds success...