By Abdulwasiu Hassan
A dinghy packed with anxious faces and tossing about in the rough seas is a predictable imagery attached to African migrant stories that evoke a patronising sigh in the western world.
Many of them are sadly true. The sight of African people, the majority of them young, risking death in the Sahara Desert or the Mediterranean Sea in search of elusive prosperity in Europe is a recurring nightmare.
Sadder still is the fact that they leave behind a continent rich in untapped natural and human resources.
So, where lies the rub? Africa's stunted growth in the industrialisation index.
Most migrants dream of finding employment in the industrially developed world because they believe such jobs and opportunities do not exist in Africa.
These impressions are borne out by statistics: mass production of goods remains low in most of the continent, although countries haven't been lacking in efforts.
The euphoria that greeted freedom from colonial rule in most African countries came with ambitious expectations from the industrialisation initiatives taken by post-independence leaders.
The birth of industries ranging from textiles to food processing and auto assembly plants led to elation that overshot the inherent potential of these endeavours.
Many industries set up at the time could not survive because of various business dynamics, not all controllable. Industrial expansion failed to keep pace with the continent's population growth, further eroding the prospects of the promised boom.
As Africa's population spiralled and aspirations grew, its inability to take advantage of these factors worked to the advantage of industrialised countries. The trend continues to this day.
Slow and steady grind
Industrialisation efforts in the continent have made some headway over the past decade, albeit slowly.
"The strongest progress is seen in Benin, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Gabon, Guinea, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal and Seychelles, all of which lifted their ranking by five or more places over the 2010-2019 period," states the African Industrialisation Index 2022.
The inaugural edition of the report, put together by the African Development Bank, also mentions that most African countries have been making slow but steady progress in industrial development.
"In the 'Performance' sub-index, countries that perform well include those that generate the highest manufacturing value-added per capita, with a substantial share of their manufacturing output destined for export," it says.
The report identifies South Africa as the most industrialised country of the continent, followed by Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Mauritius, Eswatini, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya and Namibia.
It also identifies the ten least developed countries in the continent as Liberia, followed by Malawi, São Tomé and Príncipe, Chad, Comoros, Eritrea, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi and The Gambia.
"In terms of improvement, the best-performing sub-region is East Africa, with a growth rate of 0.8% per year, followed by West Africa (0.66%). Southern Africa recorded the smallest improvement across Africa’s five sub-regions, with only 0.12% growth rate per year," states the report.
Even South Africa still has a comparatively low percentage of its GDP coming from manufacturing despite being at the forefront of industrialisation in the continent.
As of 2020, the manufacturing sector's contribution to the country's economy stood at 12%, says a report by the South African Reserve Bank.
Several factors impede industrial progress within the continent.
"Among the major things hindering African development in the industrial sector is the failure to provide social overhead benefit (capital)," Dr Isa Abdullahi of the Federal University of Kashere tells TRT Afrika.
Kamal Tasiu Abdullahi, a PhD candidate in economics at Istanbul University, believes mismanagement of the proceeds from the commodity boom is one of the stumbling blocks to industrialisation.
"The lack of effective utilisation of earnings generated from the commodities boom to foster the growth of the manufacturing sector is reflected in Africa's declining proportion of global manufacturing production," he explains.
Kamal points to the absence of basic amenities like transport and power infrastructure as being among the reasons making production costly, and thereby less viable, in many parts of the continent.
Analysts say lack of adequate technical know-how, finances and political instability are part of industrial development challenges.
Solutions in sight
Despite the current challenges, there is a sense of optimism about Africa being ripe with the potential for industrialisation.
According to a 2021 World Bank report on industrialisation of sub-Saharan Africa, the region saw a 148 per cent increase in manufacturing employment from 8.6 million in 1990 to 21.3 million in 2018. That's massive.
Experts believe the continent can do better through integrating with global manufacturing value chains and instituting policies that promote efficient completion of projects and reduce market distortions as well as constant technological upgrades to improve economic productivity.
They say there is a need to engender free international trade among countries within the continent to help industry take advantage of the one billion-plus population market of Africa.
"We have less than 20% of our trades within Africa. We do more than 80% of our trading outside the continent," says Dr Isa. "More trade within the continent will boost industrial development."
Kamal says this can be achieved by better implementing the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).
Dr Isa also advocates prioritising the creation of a highly productive, skilled workforce.
"We need to reorient our education towards technical skills that lead to production instead of just paper qualifications," he tells TRT Afrika.
The consensus is that if all the moving parts work in tandem, millions across Africa will be spared the tragedy of risking their all in the quest for a better future elsewhere.