Alas, our factories are closed, our youth are jobless, plastic trash floods in from Asia

Under the heading, “More a marathon than a sprint,” last week’s Economist wrote about the deindustrialisation of Africa.

Comparing us with Asia, the newspaper painted a picture of a continent that has been dismantling even the few factories that it had built three decades ago and shows no signs of embarking on any programme of pulling itself out of the hole it has dug itself into.

Citing the example of Nigeria, the paper reports that that while that country used to employ over a third of a million workers in the manufacturing sector, that number has dwindled to a tenth and is continuing to fall.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that between 1980 and 2013 the contribution of manufacturing to the national economy had actually fallen from 12 per cent to 11 per cent, making it the smallest in any developing region.

On employment, according to the paper, while Asia’s manufacturing jobs grew from 11 per cent of total employment to 16 per cent in the three decades to 2008, in Africa this figure was a paltry 6 per cent.

In most countries, the paper continues, the output share from manufacturing has been falling over the past quarter century.

One expert is quoted as saying that if a decade ago he went to an African country and found one world-class manufacturing firm, on his return there two years down the road he would still find one world-class firm, whereas in Vietnam or Cambodia he would find 50 new ones.

This horror story makes arrant nonsense of the celebratory narrative put out a couple years ago on “Africa Rising.”

That story was no doubt informed by the high commodity prices emanating mainly from the extractive sectors, which, as we well know, create very few jobs, exclude locals from their operations and engender serious environmental destruction.

The irony of our condition is that while in other regions deindustrialisation takes place because the economy shifts to the services and entertainment sectors, our deindustrialisation is brought about by morbidity in our economic body that is slowly taking it to the cemetery.

Because we cannot manufacture, we cannot add value to our primary products, and so we remain very basic, simple and primitive. Whole countries that have failed to maintain the initial industrialisation impetus of the 1960s and 70s have in effect dragged their peoples back into the dark days dominated by ignorance and backwardness, very close to the lowest order of human existence.

Even agriculture, which is supposed to be the mainstay of our economies, remains rudimentary because we cannot even fashion the tools for practising it in a profitable and sufferable manner. The hand-hoe is the albatross around the peasant’s neck that condemns her to subhuman drudgery.

And, of course, we continue to allow across our borders all manner of trinkets from Asia, including plastics and worthless pieces of nonsense. Now these cheap articles have littered the streets of all our suburbs and are even to be found in our hamlets, minor settlements and villages, which have become ugly dumping grounds.

These hideous eyesores — they are ubiquitous from Angola to Senegal, from Benin to Zimbabwe — should remind us always that we have failed our people by condemning them to perpetual slavery in which the clever governments of Asia make cheap trash to sell to us because our clueless rulers have no idea what they should be doing to be credible governments.

I go back in time to when Tanganyika nationalist were agitating for Uhuru. Those who doubted the very idea of Independence asked the agitators what they would do with freedom if they could not manufacture even a pin. In my little neck of the woods, the retort was, “The British can go back to where they came from because we now know how to read and write.”

The requirement for remaining free — even surviving as a nation — is much more than that. Our motto should be, quite simply, manufacture or perish. Let’s hope John Pombe meant it when he said that “Magufuli’s Tanzania will be an industrialising Tanzania”.

I really hope he will make it just that.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an aocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: