So Rwanda will soon start making smartphones, joining tech heavy hitters such as Apple, Samsung and Huawei. The news was announced by Mara Group, the company behind the venture, according to a news report by the news agency Reuters.
The company said Mara X and Mara Z, as the smartphones will be called, would be the first “Made in Africa” models and would use Google’s Android operating system and boost the country’s ambition to become a regional technology hub.
Mara Group CEO Ashish Thakkar said African countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa only import components and assemble smartphones; they do not make mobile devices.
The news may not have grabbed the attention of many people, but it is heartening considering that it comes from a continent with virtually zero history of manufacturing.
Attempts at manufacturing in those few African countries that are trying to make industrial products have often come to grief. And in the vast majority of cases, and as Thakkar noted, companies just import key components and assemble products.
Rwanda now brings to three the number of African countries that will be watched keenly to see how they carry on with their ambitious manufacturing projects. The others are Ghana (where Kantanka Group is assembling cars with some homemade parts) and Uganda (where Kiira Motors Corporation is doing the same).
Africa continues to be a laggard when it comes to manufacturing. Why it fails to make high-quality industrial products people are ready and willing to buy—and what needs to be done about this—is a hard question to answer.
All the continent’s regions manufacture nothing apart from FMCGs, or fast moving consumer goods. The Southern African Development Community, or SADC, is made up of Angola, Botswana, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eswatini (Swaziland), Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe—but, apart from South Africa, all SADC countries manufacture simple products.
Member states of the East African Community (EAC)—Burundi, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda—make soap, soda, sausages, samosas, chapati, tea bags, beer, plastic bags, detergents, tiles, cement and a few pharmaceutical products.
Enter the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It consists of Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. Have you ever seen or used an industrial product with “Made in Liberia” or “Made in Mali”? These countries, like those in Southern and East Africa, only make simple consumer goods.
Countries that do not belong to these regional blocs do not fare well either. They include Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Republic of Congo, São Tomé and Príncipe, Somalia and Sudan. Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia consider themselves Arab nations, so they can be ignored.
So why are sub-Saharan African nations not making products that countries like China, Germany, Japan, South Korea and the US make?
Some people say Africans just do not have the requisite skills (which is not to say that they will never get those skills); others say Africans do not have to work hard to survive, meaning they have a laidback attitude towards work and are not ambitious.
I do not know which side is right. But I do know that all people come into being with absolutely nothing but naked bodies and use their mental capabilities to make things happen. Highly industrialised nations were not given factories. They relied on the mental ability of their people to industrialise.
I have often asked myself why explorers who came to Africa in the 18th Century were using guns when the people they found in Africa used spears, arrows and bows. What is it that enables someone to make a rifle (when they think of making a weapon) while another person can only make a spear and an arrow?
Why is it that chemistry, biology and physics (science) are not part of African languages? And what kind of science existed in Africa before Africans were introduced to Western education? Why were there universities in Europe centuries before Africans had universities?
These are important questions to reflect on as we wait to see the progress Rwanda and other African countries that have embarked on manufacturing will make.
The writer is a journalist and former Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk