MANUFACTURING

Return of self-sufficiency doctrine of economics

Need to have some critical supplies produced within a national priority.

In Summary
  • If the manufacture of essential products is to be spread out to all corners of the globe as was the case 40 years ago, Kenya is well placed to benefit from this.
  • Our relatively advanced infrastructure and strategic location makes Kenya the natural choice for a manufacturing hub for the entire East and Central Africa.

For decades now, the international consensus on globalisation has demanded that each country focus on producing and selling only what it can offer to both their internal and external markets at an advantageous price. Any other goods would have to be imported from nations better equipped to manufacture them.

But like with so much else, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed perspectives on this.

Many rich countries that had effectively offshored the bulk of their industrial production are now having second thoughts about this. Instead, they are now looking for ways to revive local industrial production of anything considered essential to the national interest.

And this is all because the Covid-19 pandemic produced, in its early days, an unprecedented global demand for test reagents, laboratory equipment, personal protective equipment, ventilators and other ICU equipment, and various other medical supplies that no manufacturer of these goods could possibly have foreseen – and even if foreseen could hardly have been catered for.

Starting from the 1990s, China has effectively been the global manufacturing hub, famous for efficiently producing and promptly shipping out just about any goods you ordered. But once the pandemic surged, nations who took Chinese timely delivery of goods for granted were humiliated – and this at a time when the orders they wished to place (and had plenty of money to pay for) were a matter of life and death.

Hence the need to have some of these critical supplies produced within the country became a national priority.

I first got an insight into this when I read the account of a doctor who was working double shifts at the height of the pandemic in New York City when hospitals were so overrun with patients that New Yorkers got to experience something very common in Kenyan public hospitals: their sick relatives being laid out in corridors, as all the hospital wards were already overflowing with patients.

Well, if indeed this is a turning point and the world is moving away and beyond the longstanding policy of “globalisation”, which in practice meant that the Far East was the centre for all global manufacturing, then it is potentially good news for Kenya’s national ambition of diversifying our economy into manufacturing.

A Kenyan would say, “At least they were on beds.”

Anyone who has visited a Kenyan hospital that is trying to handle an acute outbreak of some disease or other, knows that finding your loved one writhing on the floor of a hospital corridor is more or less standard under such circumstances. This New York doctor told the reporter who interviewed him that in his 20-plus years as a doctor, the one thing that had never once occurred to him was that a day might come when he would use a single disposable face mask over two shifts.

Pulling off your face mask and throwing it into the disposal bin as you walked out, was something doctors like him did almost unconsciously. But now they had to conserve these face masks – designed for single use – for as long as possible as you could not tell when a new one would be available, and meantime you had patients whose lives depended on you.

So who can blame the US – or any other country – for deciding that they will not be caught napping in any future pandemic? And that anything that might possibly be needed for a public health emergency in future must be manufactured within their borders to give their government control over the supply of these essential products? And not just medical products, but maybe other things too.

Well, if indeed this is a turning point and the world is moving away and beyond the longstanding policy of “globalisation”, which in practice meant that the Far East was the centre for all global manufacturing, then it is potentially good news for Kenya’s national ambition of diversifying our economy into manufacturing.

If the manufacture of a variety of essential products is to be spread out to all corners of the globe as was the case about 40 years ago, Kenya is well placed to benefit from this. Our relatively advanced infrastructure and strategic location makes Kenya the natural choice for a manufacturing hub for the entire East and Central Africa region – a region with a population of more than 400 million people.

This is one of the very few silver linings, at a time when the dark clouds of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to weigh on us all.