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International Competitiveness of Manufacturing Firms in sub-Saharan Africa

Discussion Papers


May 2004


As the success of East Asian countries has shown, labor-intensive industry is recognized to lead economic growth in the early stages of development, utilizing relatively low labor costs. This same growth process has already started in South and South East Asian LDCs since the mid-1990s. However, the manufacturing sector in sub-Saharan Africa has been underdeveloped and manufacturing exports, in particular labour-intensive goods, have stagnated. This paper investigates the international competitiveness of the African manufacturing sector and its determinants through an analytical survey of empirical studies and a comparison with Asian low income countries.

Empirical evidences indicate that primary factors of competitiveness, namely productivity, labour cost and exchange rate are unfavorable in sub-Saharan Africa. Representative arguments attribute the weak competitiveness to problems in the business environment, factor endowment, and the exchange rate. However, careful review shows that labour cost is beyond the range explained by endowment and misalignment of exchange rates have been reduced in Africa. Moreover, comparison with Asian low income countries which have competitiveness in labour-intensive goods shows no difference in the quality of business environment, while the labour cost is significantly lower than sub-Saharan African countries. Although results should be considered tentative, high labour cost beyond endowment and conservative investment behavior emerge as important factors for the weak competitiveness in sub-Saharan Africa when controlling income level.

Keywords: manufacturing exports, international competitiveness, sub-Saharan Africa
JEL classification: F14, L60, O14, O55

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Please note that discussion papers are works in various stages of progress and most have not been edited and proofread and may contain errors of fact or judgment. Revised versions of these papers may subsequently appear in more formal publication series. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). The IDE does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included and accepts no responsibility for any consequences arising from its use.