Opinion & Analysis

How economic geography has conspired to keep Africa down

There is a little known branch of economics called Economic Geography that Kenya could pay attention to in order to garner new insights on factors informing socio-economic development.

Economic Geography is essentially the study of location, distribution and spatial organisation of economic activities across a region and the implications on development.

The pertinence of the field of study lies in how the development of Kenya and Africa, or the lack thereof, can essentially be seen as a function of geography.

Some within this field argue that the underdevelopment of the continent is a case of ‘‘bad latitude’’ and that income disparities within and between regions can be explained by erratic climates, poor soil,  low agricultural productivity and infectious disease which then mutually reinforce each other in a vicious cycle of destitution.

Jeffery Sachs makes the point that one of the reasons Africa has such a high burden of disease is because we do not have a winter; and winter essentially makes it impossible for most infectious agents such as parasites, viruses and bacteria to survive.

As a result, countries such as Kenya face chronic onslaughts of high levels of infectious agents because of our geographical location.

If Africa were located in European climes, some argue, it would be Africa and not Europe that would have economically dominated modern history.

One study even goes as far as saying that if Zimbabwe were located in central Europe, the resulting improvement in its market access would increase its GDP per capita by almost 80 per cent.

A country’s geographical location also pins down its position on the globe with regard to other countries and centres of power. This determines the importance of a country in international relations that in turn affects economic development.

Some argue that one of factors that fed the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is the proximity of the eastern coast of the USA and the western coast of Africa.

If these regions had been further away perhaps a different area would have suffered the horrors of slavery.

In Kenya a similar argument holds; the choice of Nairobi as the nexus of power by the British may have informed why regions in and around Nairobi are more economically developed than those in the outer regions such as North Eastern.

Perhaps had the climate in North Eastern been more to the liking of the British, Kenya’s socioeconomic landscape would be vastly different. Another point made by economic geography is that the sheer size of the African continent negatively affects its economic development.

Africa is massive; indeed one can comfortably house China, Japan, India, the USA, Eastern Europe, Italy, the UK, France, Portugal, Germany and Italy in Africa with room to spare.

The implication of this on the cost of building infrastructure and ensuring access to all points of the continent is obvious.

Indeed a study argues that halving distance between Zimbabwe and all its trading partners would boost its GDP per capita by 27 per cent.

In short there is the argument that if Africa were the size of Europe, it would be much easier and cheaper to build infrastructure and interlink the entire continent; a factor that would catalyse economic growth and engender closer socio-political ties.

Africa’s geography has also been the foundation of its economic strengths; vast reserves of minerals and metals have been the backbone of the African economy.

Sadly, these reserves have deteriorated into Africa’s resource curse where rents from minerals often tend to accrue to the elite and fail to trickle down to the poor.

Therefore, there is an interface between geography and human behaviour. Political instability, the chronic mismanagement of funds by some African governments coupled with Africa’s position in the international division of labour also explain the continent’s limited growth and development, not just its geography.

Nonetheless, economic geography provides a perspective of analysis which Kenya could make great use of.

Were is a development economist. Email: anzetsew@gmail.com.