Despite the considerable economic progress achieved in sub-Saharan African countries over the past decade, the UN reports that sustainable industrialization has stagnated.
On Africa Industrialization Day in late November, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon highlighted the challenges facing the region’s manufacturing sector – primarily youth and female unemployment in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and underdeveloped market penetration.
In 2014, manufacturing sectors contributed to only 11 percent of the region’s GDP, which was down from 13 percent in 2000. A mere 2 percent of global imports came from sub-Saharan Africa, and only 28 percent of those exports were manufactured goods – well below the global average. And, the manufacturing sector continues to trail behind agriculture in terms of employment impact.
It may seem like an insurmountable problem, but African and global leaders are optimistic that strategic policy priorities can get the region back on track to meet the 2030 Agenda. “Africa needs to invest in training and education for women and youth to industrialize, grow the private sector and achieve sustainable development,” Secretary General Moon said.
When women and youth enter the job market, their likelihood of finding work is severely limited by the fact that many have not attained technical, transferable or even foundation level skills.
Primary education continues to be a challenge for African leaders and the development community. Fifty-eight million children in the region remain not enrolled in primary school, forgoing the educational development critical to becoming economically productive later in life.
But significant progress has been made toward universal enrollment. Abolishing school fees, investing in the construction of schools in rural areas and developing policies to foster gender and disability inclusive educational programs have all shown great success.
Once children reach working age, it is imperative that they continue gaining transferable skills through university or technical skills through apprenticeships. The International Labor Organization has invested in internship opportunities and job insertion programs to meet these needs.
The African Development Bank has also been focusing on employment opportunities for women in the region. They offer microcredit opportunities to female entrepreneurs and support business in fostering gender inclusive work environments.
Still, a lack of decent work presents a barrier to employment for even skilled youth and women. Small and Medium Enterprises (SME), which are the primary employers of labor in the region, have not been solvent enough to create long-term employment opportunities. SMEs often lack the marketing capability to penetrate the broader global market and operate only locally, exporting to other regional developing countries. Experts agree that this needs to change to support sustainable development.
International businesses will need to continue engaging the region, increasing investments in large firms, which means that regional leaders and the development community will need to foster environments for safe investments – building roads, reducing transport costs and minimizing local conflict. Additionally, SMEs need to be supported in learning to identify and integrate into broader regional and global markets. In short: profit needs to match potential.
Africa Industrialization Day was an opportunity for leaders to address these challenges but also to highlight the important progress that has already been made. And as far as the UN is concerned, the region is heading in the right direction.