Workers at a Polarium energy-storage facility in Cape Town, South Africa, April 5, 2023. Photo: Reuters  

By Horman Chitonge

For many people, speaking about an industrial revolution in Africa is equated to the talk about Unicorns.

Analysts who doubt whether Africa can in fact industrialise, refer to the elusive nature of industrial development on the continent. But this is somewhat a misguided question.

The focus should be on whether there is something within the continent that can spark industrial growth and the transformation of the African society.

When the question is framed this way, it is easier to answer depending on the evidence one presents to support the answer.

There are several factors in Africa’s conditions and there are potential triggers and enablers of industrial revolution.

The term industrial revolution is conventionally associated with the British Industrial Revolution (BIR) which is widely believed to have started during the second half of the eighteenth century.

However, the meaning of the term is contested. Some scholars argue that the term is misleading, in the case of the BIR, because there was no abrupt break or acceleration of change in society—the changes were rather gradual and not sudden.

It is even suggested that economic growth rates were actually lower during the time which is often associated with the beginning of the BIR than in the preceding period.

It is not just the meaning of the term which is contested. Identifying the factors which triggered the British Industrial Revolutions (BIR) have proved to be contentious.

Rwanda mining indsutry is booming in recent years. Photo: Reuters

Economic historians have continued to debate this issue, with some citing political institutions as the key trigger of BIR, while others attribute it to the unique British demographic experience.

There are also those who point to the impact of Newtonian science which sparked inventions that transformed industrial production and society broadly.

This suggests that “Explaining the industrial revolution is a long-standing problem in social science, and all manner of prior events have been adduced as causes.

Given the controversy surrounding the term industrial revolution, here it is used to refer to sustained productivity growth in the economy that leads to the transformation of the broader society.

Mindset change

Africa’s industrial revolution will be different from past industrial revolutions in many respects because Africa’s context is very different from the settings in which they occurred. But Africa can learn some lessons from past industrial revolutions.

One of the most important potential triggers of Africa’s industrial revolution is the change of mindset, which often leads to a change of behaviour, decision-making, and most importantly people’s aspirations.

This change of mindset is not just mental state, it is induced by the underlying conditions, which in the context of Africa today is defined by high levels of unemployment, underemployment and low personal income.

This has generated a belief among the youth that “we” ought to do better as a people and as a continent. This mindset change is palpable among the youth I interact with as a mentor, a researcher and academic.

The result of this is the increasing levels of industriousness, innovativeness and creativity in responding to the daily challenges and gradually inducing an industrious revolution, which has always preceded industrial revolution.

In the current African situation, the saying that ‘necessity is the mother of all inventions’ is an important factor. This is evident in the growing positive attitude towards entrepreneurship.

Much of this is induced by lack of formal employment, and that is precisely the point of necessity being a trigger of industrial revolution.

Other triggers include the demographic dynamics on the continent, marked by the rapid growth of the Working Age Population (WAP), with the continent projected to account for 35 percent of global labour force by 2050 and half by 2100.

Urbanisation is another potential trigger of Africa’s industrial revolutions, linked to the growing urban population striving to navigate the challenging circumstances in which they live.

The growing pressure on land with rapidly declining labour-to-arable land ratio in the context of low crop yield is another potential trigger.

Free trade and digitisation

The triggers of Africa’s industrial revolution can set off the moment for transformation, but for this transformation to be sustained, there should be enablers.

Africa is second populous continent and some say this should be an economic advantage. Photo: Reuters

Key enablers included what has been referred to as the backbone services such as transport, communication, finance and business services, logistical services, energy, digital services, water services, and a whole range of social services including health and education. Providing all these services require modern infrastructure.

The creation of a single market and regional value chains (RVCs) through the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) is also another enabler of Africa’s industrial revolution.

For all these enablers to sustain industrial revolution, there must be an active industrial policy that ties all the loose ends together to encourage rapid productivity growth.

There is a popular perception that digitisation will spark and drive industrial growth in Africa.

While digitisation is important in creating an enabling environment for industrial transformation, the actual triggers of Africa’s industrial revolution are embedded in the continent’s underlying conditions and resources.

The author, Professor Horman Chitonge, is a lecturer at the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.

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