Missing a Manufacturing Sector: Understanding Inequality in Developing Nations

Africa may have never industrialized, but with the power of emerging technologies, the continent can “leapfrog” into the fourth industrial revolution.

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An important part of solving the drug shortage problem in Africa is understanding the cause. Simply put, most African countries didn’t industrialize to the same extent as the developed world and are effectively missing a manufacturing sector.

As a result, African countries are almost completely reliant on other countries for medications and are often limited to outdated drugs, in part because there is little incentive for international drug companies to register and market their products in each African country. Moreover, fluctuations in demand for different medications significantly lowers individual African countries’ purchasing power: international manufacturers will seldom fill small batch orders unless the price is inflated up to 30 times more than in the United States (1). 

This issue is complicated by long lead times, where it may take up to six months for a medication order to arrive, making it virtually impossible to be prepared for a surge in demand for medications, particularly in a pandemic situation. The lack of access to medications often drives individuals to consume more readily-available drugs–those that are expired, or worse, counterfeit medications that can pose a major health risk.

Africa’s missing manufacturing sector has had consequences beyond limited access to affordable medications: one could argue that it is a key factor in widespread poverty and inequality. In a 2016 working paper entitled “Africa’s Manufacturing Malaise”, the World Bank suggests that poverty and inequality can be addressed by creating more and better jobs, a key source of which can be found in the manufacturing sector:

“It is often argued that the process of manufacturing-led structural transformation results in employment growth characterized by the creation of good, high-productivity, good-paying jobs. The kind of jobs that can break the cycle of poverty and address inequality.”(2)

Manufacturing is a critical driver of economic growth, development and diversification; and encourages social progress, positively impacts the balance of trade and promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education. Drug manufacturing capabilities offer these benefits, as well as the opportunity for improved public health.

The discussion regarding whether African countries should establish their own drug manufacturing capabilities is nothing new. A cursory internet search reveals a 20-year-old debate on whether Africa should make its own drugs, with every notable and/or relevant organization weighing in. Some question the feasibility of building a drug manufacturing sector “from scratch”, while others assume African countries simply can’t industrialize.

Yes. They. Can.

Africa may have never industrialized, but with the power of emerging technologies, the continent can “leapfrog” into the fourth industrial revolution. 

Kemet’s approach revolutionizes drug manufacturing by embedding a decentralized medication manufacturing sector in African countries. What makes this hyperlocal approach possible is information and communications, or ICT technology: artificial intelligence, analytics and the Internet of Things, which globally interconnects these facilities. Real-time information on drug supply and shortages–combined with the ability to predict changes in supply and demand– would make these hyperlocal facilities extremely agile, especially in a disaster or emergency situation.

So is it feasible?

Yes. It. Is.


  1. British Broadcasting Corporation. Low-income African countries ‘pay 30 times more’ for drugs. British Broadcasting Corporation [18 June 2019]. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-48674909
  2. Bhorat, H., Steenkamp, F., & Rooney, C. (2016). Africa’s Manufacturing Malaise (No. 2063-2018-649).

Photo: Bill Oxford