Like most people who have been exposed to western life, I often ask myself the same question; what were the causes of the industrial revolution and how can we Africans replicate it?
When one looks at the most powerful nations on earth today one sees that they are there as a result of the shift in thinking that occurred over 200 years ago.
The root causes of the industrial revolution in Europe were numerous but a number of fundamental changes in society caused it; for example in the Britain after their civil war of the 1640’s, the feudal power of most of the aristocracy was broken.
An industrial revolution is always preceded by an agricultural revolution, in Britain they had a scientific revolution in farming which produced more yield; this freed up labour to develop other skills as people were food secure.
High land taxes meant the landed aristocracy were crippled with debts and sought new ways to invest; industry was a good investment with cheap labour desperate for work.
The industrial revolution was funded by the money from the agricultural revolution; farmers realised they could make more money from one hectare with a factory than with 10,000 hectares farming where you have to pay higher taxes per acre.
Too much of our capital is locked in land; higher land taxes might persuade people to invest in other means of production but that only comes after a nation is food secure.
The down side of the industrial revolution was child labour, slavery, indentured servitude, intolerable working conditions, all of which still persist in various guises, but one should not overplay the role of slavery.
Although the industrial revolution was partly powered by slave labour, it accounted for only 5 percent of revenue and 12 percent of total output; the existence of slavery in the Americas mirrored the feudal structure of the middle-ages and explains why the Yankee North and the Confederate South in USA developed differently.
Necessity is the mother of invention and the abundance of an unskilled underclass (black slaves) removed the need for technological development; therefore their mindsets were different and the war was inevitable.
Colonialism and slavery does not explain why some Western powers dominate the world; look at two nations, both had colonies but only one exploited their opportunity.
Britain and Spain were superpowers in the years leading up to the industrial age; Spain had most of the New World in the Americas, nearly all the world’s gold market, silver, platinum, coffee, sugar, rum, exotic foods, and yet it made them a poorer nation.
Extreme inequalities in their society meant the wealth was squandered on luxury goods, glorious cathedrals and mansions; while the British looked for iron mines, the Spaniards looked for gold mines and in industrialisation iron is worth more than gold because it is productive and practical.
One can transpose the Spanish experience with many African nations’ attempts at industrialisation; when we search for minerals we seek the most expensive not practical ones.
Congo shows the effects of a nation that has all the minerals needed for success but they are powering other people’s development and not their own, and the billions they earned in decades were squandered by Mobutu’s elite on luxury goods.We need an iron mine in East Africa as the bedrock of our forthcoming industrial revolution, a steel foundry which is world class is also needed; we cannot import steel with constantly rising energy costs.
The embryonic emergence of the EU happened when France and Germany united their steel industries; likewise we must refocus our regional output away from mere national goals towards wider regional goals. Right now the governments of our nations should focus on regional food security, kick-starting agricultural output, and laying foundations for a real industrial base.
Presently global dynamics show that steel is a very competitive, expensive and prone to sudden surges and lapses; far from being a reason not to invest it is actually the opposite.
We have to be able to control our means of production as a region; we also need industrial capacity even if it is cheaper elsewhere.
We will have to strike the fine balance between protectionism and free-market economics. If all our regional nations pooled their resources then we could fund the steel industry we need, to all our benefit.