The return of local manufacturing: a global trend with strong roots in African cities

Car repair shop in Kumasi Ghana

If you start thinking about the products and goods around you in terms of not just their upfront costs, but rather their externalized costs, then the global manufacturing market starts to appear rather questionable. It’s easy to spot that there might be something wrong when a bookshelf designed and marketed in Sweden, built in China from trees harvested in Indonesia, is shipped to South Africa and sold at a mark-up but still ends up costing less than a locally produced equivalent. What is reflected in the low cost of many imported products is a myriad of international subsidies and geopolitical influences. Hugely subsidised oil prices that allow for cheap shipping, wages far below international livability standards, limited environmental regulations and an overall apathy for monitoring the impact of the production of goods outside our borders. If we are to develop more equitable and inclusive cities then manufacturing cannot continue to happen only in other countries or on the periphery. It needs to exist within our cities if we are to create truly mixed-use spaces that have employment opportunities for a wide variety of people.

Local manufacturing starts to place the issues represented by globalised manufacturing back in the limelight. Making manufacturing visible again is of itself one of the primary benefits behind local manufacturing. When issues around employment, production styles, efficiency and the environment are being dealt with in a more visible location the need to find innovative solutions becomes vastly more apparent. The benefits of local manufacturing are those of reinvestment, skills and education development. The local economy is expanded and made more resilient through increased diversity. A wider variety of employment opportunities are opened up in cities through manufacturing jobs, bringing change to spaces that can easily become oriented purely towards the service economy. There is an increased social, economic and political drive as the benefits and costs of manufacturing become more transparent.

This shift toward local manufacturing is a global trend, but the Global South represents a unique environment for it. The connection to existing markets are more tenuous and the need for employment and economic growth very real. In many cases, hubs of local manufacturing have already sprung up in African cities, with artisans and businesses relying on proximity and local knowledge networks to help them remain competitive. These have become particularly prominent in informal and  migratory areas within cities.

Kenya and Ghana both have local manufacturing scenes that offer insight into the future of small scale local manufacturing within the urban environment.

Kamukunji Metalwork in Nairobi, Kenya

The name for working-class artisans in Kenya is Jua Kali, ‘hot sun’ in Swahili — a reference to artisan’s work being done outdoors. In recent decades, the term has expanded to refer to small and micro enterprises focused on artisanal production and small-scale engineering. Kamukunji in Nairobi has become a local manufacturing hub for these artisans. They produce low-cost goods in labour intensive non-machine-assisted manufacturing, recycling scrap materials into goods and selling them out of the same stalls that they work in. The manufacturing hub centres around small, lean enterprises with mentorship systems that rely on local networks and customers brought to them by the clustered location. The firms tend to be small 4-10 member SMMEs or 1-3 person micro enterprises with the area being densely packed, the shops themselves forming the street front [i]. With limited storage facilities the workshop itself often doubles as a retail space and sales are generally made directly to the public and to order. The closely packed, open and informal nature of the space means people are exposed to the manufacturing process itself, which acts as a recruitment, marketing and research opportunity.

Suame Magazine Cluster in Kumasi, Ghana

The Suame Magazine manufacturing cluster in Kumasi, Ghana has existed since the 1920s as an area for artisans, but expanded in the 1970s due to government regulation that prohibited the importation of new vehicles. In 2008 more than 9,000 firms were operating in the area with an average of 10 people to a firm [ii]. These small enterprises have successfully played the role of local spare parts manufacturers for vehicles in Ghana, successfully enough that the products are sold in neighbouring countries. The Suame Magazine cluster is one of the largest groups of small scale local manufacturers on the continent, and has operated for nearly a century. The informal nature of the space has allowed it to remain flexible and offer employment and space for a large number of firms, but this has required government support over the years to meet infrastructural demands. The core of the Suame Magazine cluster has been in meeting a market demand that was unique to the area, with local manufacturers responding to local needs.

Lessons for elsewhere

Kamukunji and Suame exemplify the benefits of local manufacturing in an informal environment. A low barrier of entry and an informality of operation that allows people with limited training to participate in as well as broaden the local economy. This model is compatible with larger pro urban prerogatives, that of limiting resource consumption and maintaining a compact footprint in our rapidly growing cities. Shops use little space, require little energy and are actively involved in local recycling programs. The scale of their operations mean that they are all reliant on one another in some capacity, which encourages the formation of strong social networks and linkages that in turn help create more resilient businesses and offer educational opportunities. These are industries formed in response to a global market that would not supply their countries adequately, or at too high of a cost. This has driven local innovation and created local economies well suited to dealing with the coming changes to the global manufacturing model.


Mark Jackson is an editorial intern at UrbanAfrica.Net with a background in environmental sciences as well as city and regional planning. He is presently studying at UCT in the engineering and built environment department, doing research into the project management success factors behind large scale urban developments.


Further References:

Fayolle, A., Kyri, P., Li, F. 2015. Developing, Shaping and Growing Entrepreneurship. Edward Elgar Publishing. Pg, 253 – 275.

McCormick, D., and M., N., Kinyanjui. 2004. “Industrializing Kenya: Building Capacity of Micro and Small Enterprises”. September Working Paper 15, University of Leipzig.

Obeng, G., Y. 2002. “Kumasi Suame Magazine: A background paper” UNU/INTECH-KITE Research Project. Kumasi, Ghana


Picture Credit: Adam Cohn

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