Could Made in Africa Be a Substitute for Made in Italy?

Italian products have often been associated with quality, high specialization and differentiation, elegance, and strong links to experienced and famous Italian industrial districts often connected with the concept of luxury. This is largely due to the rich history of the Italian craftsmanship.

Ludovico Sofa, Made in Italy
Ludovico Sofa, Made in Italy by Nellavetrina

Italy is renowned for its artisans. They create unique masterpieces by hand, even in an age in which most products are mass-produced. But these artisans and their work are at risk of disappearing, just like in Africa.

The Michelangelos of the manual arts are dying and their mastery with them. Italians, despite high unemployment rates, just aren’t learning crafts anymore. Oltrarno in Florence is a neighbourhood where artisans have crafted masterpieces from metal for centuries. It takes about a month to carve metal plates by hand. Afterwards they can be cut to create pill boxes, ring holders, and other objects that are sold in luxury stores all over the world. The owners of these workshops, started out as apprentices many years ago. They worked long hours, toiled and learnt the art – these apprentices eventually became artisans and then business owners. However old and ready to retire, they have nobody who is capable of taking over the workshop. Artisan workshops are closing their shutters throughout Florence, the city that nurtured Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Brunelleschi. Most of the masterpieces that came from the Renaissance were also made by the skillful hands of artisans and artists.

Apprenticeships aren’t available and Italy’s public universities do not offer art training. Aging artisans simply can’t afford to pass along their knowledge. Due to new labour laws and Italy’s bureaucracy, hiring an apprentice is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor.

In Rome among the city’s renowned tailors, the story is similar. Optimism is rarer than peddle-operated sewing machines. In the 1950s , Italy was home to four million tailors. Today, this figure has plummeted to 700,000. The world outside Italy’s boot is bearing the consequences with no one capable of repairing clothing or making it to measure. A part of Italy’s artistic heritage risks extinction.

Hands transform garments with a finesse impossible to achieve with the most sophisticated sewing machines

Another threat also looms: the appeal of designers. Some students at the National Academy of Tailors in Rome admit that they are “obsessed” with the designs of Tom Ford and Giorgio Armani. They want to learn everything about menswear tailoring yet have no plans to become tailors. They want to become designers.

Sad as all this may sound, there lies within it a window of opportunity for Africa.

Why have African countries failed to prosper? Because they have not transformed their economic structures from agriculture and mining to modern industry. High-income developed countries in Europe and North America all started off transforming their humble, pre-modern agrarian economies by developing light manufacturing. 

China is now at a stage, like that of Japan in the 1960s and the four Asian Tigers in the 1980s, to begin relocating its light manufacturing to other countries because of its rapidly rising labour costs. Growth in China and in other emerging market economies, such as India and Brazil, will again provide opportunities to other developing countries to jumpstart their industrialisation.

Africa is potentially an attractive destination for the relocation of light manufacturing from China and other emerging market economies. It has an abundant supply of young labour. It is close to European and US markets. And it faces zero tariffs on its exports, thanks to the US Africa Growth Opportunity Act and the EU’s Everything But Arms policy.

Africa can become the next manufacturing hub for global markets. The Made in Africa Initiative aims to help the continent capture the window of opportunity for industrialisation arising from the pending relocation of light manufacturing from China and other emerging market economies. By capturing this opportunity, Africa will achieve sustainable, dynamic and inclusive growth. What Africa needs now are success stories, to provide the aspiration, confidence and experience necessary for it to realise its potential in terms of industrialisation and shared prosperity. The Made in Africa Initiative hopes to create such successes in African countries.


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