Thanks to Cherokee Gothic, I came across this very interesting paper by Herrendorf, Rogerson and Valentinyi (pdf) about the structural transformation of economies in the process of economic growth. The figures are striking:

Source: "Growth and Structural Transformation" (2013), by Herrendorf, Rogerson and Valentinyi

Source: “Growth and Structural Transformation” (2013), by Herrendorf, Rogerson and Valentinyi

These figures focus on a sample of industrialized countries, mostly EU, US and East Asian powers (Japan and Korea). They show that as GDP per capital grows, (1) employment in the agricultural employment tends to decrease, (2) employment in the services sector increases linearly and (3) employment in the manufacturing sector follows an inverted u pattern: it grows initially but then it tends to decrease as GDP per capita grows. The question that we should ask ourselves is whether African economies will follow the same pattern.

My opinion is that ‘yes’ – over the long term African economies will go through such structural transformation. However, the biggest mistake is to say that during the process one sector is more important than the other. If someone concludes that African governments should focus on services and neglect agriculture because that’s how economic growth happens. Well, he or she hasn’t understood much about the topic. As Di Maio recently argued, industrialization and food security are not competing policy objectives.

At the same time, it is clear that growth in the manufacturing sector is one of the key components missing from the puzzle. Kenya is in the initial part of the graph, moving from low-income to middle-income, but that is happening without any significant growth of employment or value-added in the manufacturing sector. This is what John Page calls “structural deficit” in Africa:

Africa faces a significant structural deficit—the result of two and a half decades of deindustrialisation and increasing dependence on natural resources. Today Africa’s manufacturing sector is smaller, less diversified and less sophisticated than it was in the decade following independence. Agro-industry and tradable services are still in their infancy. As industry lost ground, labour moved from higher to lower productivity employment. Without an acceleration of structural change, the region’s recent growth turnaround runs the risk of not sustaining its momentum into a middle-income status.