Manufacturing jobs were manually intensive, but today machines do the heavy lifting, yet we still see women concentrated in office tied roles … why? Photo: Supplied by The African Storyteller

JOHANNESBURG – Industrialisation is an engine of economic growth and countries across Africa are taking commendable steps to boost the manufacturing sector. The African Continental Free Trade Area, which went into force in May this year, aims to create a single market for goods and services in Africa in order to facilitate industrialisation. 

Similarly, the African Union has committed to consider Africa’s manufacturing sector and prioritise it in its Agenda 2063. African governments are establishing special economic zones and developing flexible policies to attract investment. A report by US research group Brookings Institute states that Africa’s manufacturing output has the capacity to exceed $1 trillion (more than R14 trillion at current exchange rates) by 2025. 

However, manufacturing has a diversity problem – women are underrepresented among the thousands of skilled artisans employed in the sector. In South Africa, for instance, upwards of 1.6 million people are employed in manufacturing but less than 35 percent are women. 

The reasons for this are varied but I believe the most important is that manufacturing is still perceived to be a uniquely male profession. It starts as early as Technical and Vocational Education and Training Colleges, where enrolment of women in engineering programmes remains relatively low. The number of women in science and engineering in Africa is less than 20 percent, even though women make up more than 50 percent of the population and form the majority of the work force in most countries. 

Traditionally, manufacturing jobs were manually intensive, but today, physical strength is no longer a factor on the factory floor because machines do the heavy lifting. Yet, we still see women concentrated in office tied roles mostly for social reasons rather than lack of ability. 

TMH Africa focuses on the manufacture of trains and while the employment opportunities are rapidly expanding, skilled artisan work is not attractive to most women. The lack of women in manufacturing is a challenge that affects all of society and not just our sector. 

As the rail manufacturing sub-sector, we need to make it clear that trains are a public good that exist for the benefit of everyone regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or class. We also need to get the message across that industrial professions are not necessarily about getting your hands dirty; increasingly they require people who have the technical skills to operate complex machinery. 

The technology involved in train manufacture is advancing rapidly … recruitment efforts should be focused on women to make up the next generation of skilled artisans. With our investment of R500 million over the course of five years, women representation is a top priority as we expand our workforce.

The Africa of the future will not be built by working within the same boundaries that innovation can allow us to transcend.

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb

Jerome Boyet is the chief executive of TMH Africa. He is responsible for the development of TMH in Africa, located in South Africa, which works to serve the country and the African continent.

BUSINESS REPORT