Last week I attended a conference titled “Africa Arise”, organized by Beza International Church in cooperation with members of the diplomatic community in Addis Abeba.
This conference took place just prior to the annual African Union meeting and in fact has become an annual event since the first one took place five years ago. Since then it is attended by an increasing number of Christian leaders, diplomats and politicians from all over Africa and from other parts of the world.
During the conference, important issues affecting Africa are discussed and solutions are suggested from the Christian and biblical perspectives. Issues include economic development, resources management, corruption, security and conflict, major contemporary issues in other words.
The conference takes place over three full days, with deliberations during day time and a church service every evening during which Christian leaders from several different African countries speak.
Just prior to the opening of the annual assembly of the African Union, the early morning of the last day of the conference, Sunday, is traditionally dedicated for a prayer breakfast in one of the halls at the new Africa Union offices, on invitation by the deputy chair and attended this year by the chairman of the African Union, amongst many other delegates and officials.
From the economic development point of view several of the speakers expressed their concerns about the exploitation of the natural resources in Africa, the environmental degradation and the fact that many African nations depend on imports from mainly China now, as compared to own production. Indeed, one of the speakers shared his appreciation for the nice new hotel he was staying in, and there are many nowadays in Addis Abeba and in other towns throughout Ethiopia, but he also observed that everything in the hotel came from China. Furniture, bathroom accessories, drapers, utensils, the bed, name it, it has been imported and it is true. This is not only the case in Ethiopia but in many other African countries as well. “When are we going to produce items ourselves that compare or are even better than the ones imported from abroad?”, he asked. He has a point, in my opinion. We have natural and human resources, and most of what is produced locally is done by foreign investors, precisely because of these reasons and because production costs are relatively low. Meanwhile, hundreds of young girls are leaving this country and the continent daily to find employment elsewhere, mainly in Arab countries. What does that mean? Are there better opportunities for them there than here? What kind of employment will they find and how will they be treated there? This has now become an issue of concern for the authorities and I hope answers will be found to reverse this trend, as it comes suspiciously close to human trafficking. The girls leaving the country have never travelled before and have little idea what is waiting for them on the other side, where the grass seems to be greener. Some of them may be successful but I suspect this is not the case for most.
Whenever, I travel to the countryside here, we often stop at small shops along the road, to buy some refreshments like biscuits and drinks, most of them imported again. When are we going to make our own biscuits and mango juice? Instead of producing we are becoming specialised in the service industry: Hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, spa’s, massage parlours, organising events, is what we offer, while many of the visitors we serve come and invest in our resources for their production.
But if we decide to begin producing more ourselves, do we have what it takes? Do we have what it takes to produce the quality and quantities of goods that can compete with imported items or that can even be exported? Admittedly in some sectors we have made good progress but much more can be done
To begin with, the quality of what we produce ourselves often leaves much to be desired. As a business owner you are responsible for delivering quality goods and services. So do you have the knowledge and the skills to operate in a particular sector? Are you specialised in the specifics of your business, the operations of the equipment and machines, and their maintenance? Do you know what to do in case things go wrong? Quality is particularly important in case of exporting. The standards of many products have been defined internationally and sub standards will be rejected. Now, in the absence of sufficient vocational training, many companies face problems in getting it right and in the end accept the mediocre level of quality for what it is. Why do we accept this? Why not set the standard higher?
There is also the other side of the coin. Do we appreciate what it takes to manufacture quality goods in Ethiopia and in other African countries? It is not easy, when you have to compete with all kinds of cheaper, sometimes even low quality imported products. If we seriously want our local manufacturers to develop and grow in this era of globalization, they need support. Countries like China and South Africa have been closed economies for many years and during those years developed their own manufacturing industries. Now they are leading exporters of many products and services. Ghandi successfully made India manufacture its own products as well. In the same spirit we can invest in our local producers, paying fair prices, so they can maintain and improve their quality. With the African populations growing at a very fast pace, we will need jobs for millions. Successful companies will be able to create employment for the future generation. Sadly though, there are examples of factories that are not doing well because they cannot compete with the cheaper imports. Let us buy from the local producers, we need them. We must realize that indeed the private sector is the backbone of any economy, initiating development and employment. For them to be able to play their role effectively though, it is essential that they can operate in a conducive environment to be created and facilitated by their governments. An environment that is fair in terms of competition, taxation, conditions of service, an environment that protects human rights and Africa’s natural resources, an environment that is free from corruption and which protects and provide services that can be relied upon. Africa Arise!