African economies can become major participants in global supply chains by harnessing vast resources of materials needed by high-technology sectors and their own growing consumer markets, trade and development body the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) said in its ‘Economic Development in Africa Report 2023’, launched on August 16, in Nairobi, Kenya.
Supply chains encompass the systems and resources needed to develop, produce and transport goods and services from suppliers to customers.
"This is Africa's moment to bolster its position in global supply chains as diversification efforts continue. It's also an opportunity for the continent to strengthen its emerging industries, foster economic growth and create jobs for millions of its people," says Unctad secretary-general Rebeca Grynspan.
According to the report, Africa's abundance of critical minerals and metals, including aluminium, cobalt, copper, lithium and manganese – vital components in technology-intensive industries – positions the continent as an attractive destination for manufacturing, as recent upheavals caused by trade turbulence, geopolitical events and economic uncertainty compel manufacturers to diversify their production locations.
Africa also offers advantages such as shorter and simpler access to primary inputs; a younger, technology-aware and adaptable labour force; and a burgeoning middle class, known for its growing demand for more sophisticated goods and services, the report outlines.
The report highlights that creating an environment conducive to technology-intensive industries would help raise wages on the continent, currently set at a minimum of $220 a month, compared with an average of $668 a month in the Americas.
Deeper integration into global supply chains would also diversify African economies, boosting their resilience to future shocks, the report posits.
According to the report, expanding energy supply chains into Africa is also an opportunity to accelerate climate action. The continent's vast renewable energy potential, particularly in solar power, could help reduce production costs and decrease reliance on fossil fuel-based energy sources.
The report emphasises that Africa needs more investment in renewable energy to help bridge the significant investment gap and tackle other obstacles to the manufacturing of solar panels on the continent.
Currently, only about 2% of global investments in renewable energy go to Africa. The growth of investment in renewable energy, as shown by Unctad, could promote the manufacturing of solar panels on the continent, the report points out.
A further example is that of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which, in 2022, was the largest producer of copper in Africa, at 1.8-million metric tons, with the industry failing to go beyond exploration and extraction. The country is also a potential destination for refining metal products for the electric vehicles industry.
Africa needs significant investment in infrastructure to bolster its position as a supply chain destination, the report says.
Seventeen African countries, including Angola, Botswana, Ghana and South Africa, have already implemented local content regulations to support the growth of local supply chains, foster technology transfer, create jobs and add value within their borders.
Additionally, African countries should also secure better mining contracts and exploration licences for metals used in high-tech products and supply chains. This would strengthen domestic industries, enabling local firms to design, procure, manufacture and supply the necessary components, the report outlines.
The adoption of innovative digital technologies is also highlighted as critical to optimising supply chain processes. Countries such as Kenya are said to have made notable progress in this realm, with rising rates of digital skills adoption in Africa.
Unctad has urged governments to create sound policies, foster an enabling regulatory environment and scale up programmes to promote the widespread adoption of these technologies.
The body also reiterated its call for better financing solutions to offer African countries and businesses affordable capital and liquidity to invest in strengthening their supply chains.
The report says African small and medium-sized enterprises need more supply chain finance, which bridges the payment time gap between buyers and sellers, improves access to working capital and reduces financial strain.
According to the report, the value of the African supply chain finance market rose by 40% between 2021 and 2022, reaching $41-billion. However, the report says this is insufficient.
The continent can mobilise more funds by removing barriers to supply chain finance, including regulatory challenges, high-risk perception and insufficient credit information, it shows.
Unctad also underlines the need for debt relief to offer African countries fiscal space to invest in strengthening their supply chains, as, on average, they pay four times more for borrowing than the US and eight times more than European economies.