For centuries, African countries have remained as the underdog when it comes to manufacturing. Only a handful of the continent’s 54 nations make products that can grab the attention of a consumer.
Africans themselves know this full well. They know, for example, that their countries import anything from toothpicks to needles to cars.
It is not a hopeless situation though. The “Africa rising” narrative continues to gain prominence and many people in Africa and outsiders think the continent – which has the largest number of fastest-growing economies – has the potential to become the next global economic powerhouse.
But that optimism is not universal. African countries still rely on primary agriculture and extractive activities such as mining, logging and fisheries, all of which are dead-end economic activities that do not lead to sustainable growth and development. Services and manufacturing – which provide increasing returns over time and can spur growth – are still few and far between.
That may soon start to change if projects like the one started by two enterprising men in the West African nation of Ghana are replicated across Africa.
Long way to go
The Kantanka Group of Companies’ project is quite ambitious. The images we have published show a helicopter being built and a car that will use an electric motor as opposed to an engine, and will be powered by solar energy.
The Ghanaians have other challenges to grapple with. Finding a market for the cars is not going to be easy. None of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa – and that includes Ghana’s immediate neighbours such as Togo, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso – have potential buyers at this stage.
In Ghana, as our story makes clear, few people live above the poverty line. A brand new car for many remains a luxury they cannot afford. The cars may be cheap, but it is still hard to see why Kantanka products will be considerably cheaper than those from more established car manufacturers.
Brand new cars are easy to sell in countries with strong economies where most people have decent jobs and easily get loans from banks. Without individual buyers, that leaves governments, companies and NGOs as the major potential buyers for the Kantanka Group of Companies products.
Exporting cars is going to be even harder. Competition in European and Asian markets would be exceptionally stiff. And, in order to compete, the Ghanaian exporters must have done just about everything their counterparts in Europe and Asia do to ensure their products meet the high standards consumers in those places have come to expect.
The Ghanaians will also have to contend with the fact that many people in Africa tend to view products made by their own countries as substandard. A badly tailored suit from London, so goes the joke, is still better than a nicely tailored suit from Nairobi.
Yet Africa’s hope for a bright future lies not in the rhetoric and promises of economic development made by its political leaders but in projects like the one the Ghanaians have embarked on. Africa can grow and incomes will rise if countries begin to make products that other countries want to buy.
The potential benefits of this project are too good for the brains behind it to abandon it. Think about the number of jobs alone that the project can create if it succeeds.
Safo and his son are doing what countries in Asia have done. Last year a diplomat from South Korea, one of the countries making products that have wowed the world, told a newspaper in East Africa that the Asian nation’s economic development began when the Koreans changed their attitude and mindset.
Park Jong-Dae said they realised they had to do things on their own and not to rely on foreign donations.
“What happened is that we never discarded our traditional [old] technology. We simply developed them. And over time, we kept upgrading them to a point that they are now very efficient,” Park said.
African countries can and should emulate South Korea.