Opinion : Could Industrialists lead the way up and out of COVID-19?

By Chris Bishop

This week, on May 5 at 1400 CAT to be precise, CNBC Africa will be stepping into a new era by hosting its first ever virtual panel discussion that will not only be beamed live to 16 million households across Africa, but also will be on zoom.

It will be called Business Tomorrow and will focus on the revival of business in Africa whenever the COVID-19 pandemic lifts and allows commerce to breathe. Predictions are grim – more than a million jobs are expected to be lost and tens of thousands of companies are likely to go to the wall.

So, when we discussed in the newsroom this week the first topic for the first discussion it a no brainer – small business. These foot soldiers of the economy are likely to bear the brunt of the hard times – many were struggling long before the pandemic and the downgrade to junk status by the rating agencies.

Into this discussion will be throwing one word that is my pet topic – industrialization. I think this is a good way to create wealth on the way out of a desperate spot by making goods and parts and pieces that the world needs and can be exported to earn hard currency.

Now politicians throw the word industrialization around all the time, after all, it sounds good in speeches – I often wonder whether policy is as good.

A new generation of industrialists is scarce, but more scarce is the investment and backing from the banks to make it happen and maybe also the will among entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty.

I have been interviewing and studying entrepreneurs in Africa for more than a quarter of a century and I have often wondered whether is the lack of will on the side of many entrepreneurs to get down into the grimy world of industry. After all, it is not as sexy as IT, or the digital world, and it is less likely to get you into the glossy magazines on TV chat shows.

But it is rewarding and long term and people will always need fashioned metal until the day you can email a machine to a factory or 3D print it.

A distant part of my family is a testament to this and has been fashioning metal profitably for the nearly 200 years.

My great-great-great grandfather Stephen Grainger started out, with virtually nothing, in his poor back yard in a place called Dudley in the Black Country in the English midlands – so called because, even when I was a child, most of the buildings were blackened with industrial smoke. It was a hive of steam, tapping and welding and out of the Black Country came the world’s machines, tools, grinders, smelters, guns, cars and motorcycles

Stephen Grainger had little education, but a burning desire to make it as an industrialist and started out by dragooning his family into swinging hammers all day to make nails in the back yard. The family worked hard to build the wealth down the generations. My great-grandfather William worked as a striker – the skilled man who swings the sledgehammer for the blacksmith – in the Grainger factory.

All along the profits were invested to build small factories – one of which is working away as I write this in the Black Country nearly 200 years after the family made its first nail.

I went to see the family factory about 25 years ago and my relatives showed me proudly the many boxes full of little metal clips for shop shelves everywhere from Hong Kong to Sydney. It lacks glory, maybe, the family is never likely to make the cover of a glossy magazine, but they’re always likely to make money. The industrial enterprise has fed thousands of people in the last two centuries. Maybe many entrepreneurs and families in Africa can turn the same humble beginnings into a solid industrial base that is probably needed more now than ever.

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