Despite recent decades of economic growth, absolute poverty is on the rise in Nigeria, as population increases continue to outpace the reduction in poverty rates. Manufacturing industries, which have the potential to absorb large numbers of workers into better paying jobs, have expanded only very modestly, and most workers remain employed in low productivity sectors (e.g. informal urban economy, subsistence agriculture). This scenario is particularly stark in the northern states, which concentrate more than half of the national population and where poverty rates are at their highest. As the largest region of the most populated nation in the continent (and itself three times as large as any other West African country), quantifying and qualifying northern Nigeria’s past economic development is crucial in order to discuss the perspectives for structural change and poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa. In this series of posts we want to explore the fortunes of manufacturing in northern Nigeria, from the highly successful handicraft production in the pre-colonial period to contemporary manufacturers’ struggles with Asian competition. We will consider both global influences and local realities, and we will take the state (pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial) and its policies seriously.(1)
Northern Nigeria has a long history of handicraft manufacturing. Under the nineteenth-century Sokoto Caliphate the region became the largest textile producer in Sub-Saharan Africa. The indigo-dyed, blue-black cloth of Kano, woven in the city as well as in neighbouring towns and villages, reached markets across West Africa connected by Hausa trading diasporas. According to Shea’s classic work on this industry, by the 1890s Kano producers were importing unfinished Manchester cloth for dyeing, and selling textiles of a much higher quality than the European imports.
So what happened to this handicraft factory of West Africa? If we take the share of the workforce engaged in manufacturing as an indicator of industrialization, then northern Nigeria deindustrialized during British ‘indirect rule’ (1904-1960). Partially as a result of the expansion of export agriculture (mainly of groundnuts and, to a lesser extent, cotton), the share of the workforce in manufacturing decreased from 18% to 7% in the last four decades of the colonial period. After independence in 1960, growth episodes were led by transportation, urban services, and government expenditure fuelled by oil transfers from the south-east of the country, but did not spur significant structural change in favour of manufacturing. By 2006, the share of the workforce in manufacturing had risen only slightly, to 8%.
In global economic history, poverty alleviation has often resulted from a previous period of systematic movement of labour from low- to high-productivity sectors. The continued expansion of manufacturing achieved just that during the industrial revolution in the West and, in the twentieth century, in many parts of the Global South. In large Asian and Latin American economies, ‘late industrialization’ sustained impressive achievements in terms of job creation and poverty alleviation. In cases such as Brazil, Mexico, and China, large domestic markets, fast urbanization, and improvements in education contributed decisively to lifting millions of people out of poverty. Can northern Nigeria, with its large population, deep historical manufacturing roots and access to the largest national market in Africa, develop into a ‘late industrializer’ in the twenty-first century?
For now let me finish on a cautiously optimistic long-term note. Rapid demographic growth will not necessarily result in rapid structural change, but, through improved market integration and continued expansion of education, the (northern) Nigerian economy could harness the skills and energy of its rising population to produce a more impressive expansion of manufacturing than we have yet seen.
(1) Much of the primary research has been made possible by financial support from a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant (RG87812) (PI Gareth Austin). I also thank the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure (CAMPOP) for its research environment and facilities.