Sonia Hoque (Programme & Operations Manager, ODI)
1 March 2018
A to Z Textile Mills Ltd (A to Z) is a remarkable example of how African manufacturing can flourish. A locally owned, diversified, vertically integrated firm with over 7,000 employees, it produces and supplies a large volume and range of goods to domestic markets, and exports internationally. The firm also takes substantial social and environmental responsibility. A to Z has its own recycling plant, housing, childcare and daily meals for its predominantly female workforce, and demonstrates how large manufacturing firms can make a significant development impact.
Can Africa industrialise and move out of poverty?
SET findings from Myanmar show the great potential of the garments industry to create ‘good’ jobs. This stands in opposition to the results of an experiment by Christopher Blattman and Stefan Dercon, which found factory jobs were not an ‘escalator out of poverty’ (as many economists claim). This age-old debate in the development field reflects ideological differences between practitioners and even policy-makers: despite evidence to the contrary, many people are still not convinced that industrialisation and factory/manufacturing jobs really improve the lives of poor and low-skilled workers, arguing that they make them vulnerable to exploitation by capitalist manufacturers. Advocates of this view usually support entrepreneurial (and informal) income-generating activities or improving agriculture as the key to poverty alleviation and development. Blattman and Dercon’s conclusions seemingly supported this view, claiming that difficulties facing factory workers were a result of bad management and the absence of policies providing social protection.
One major factory in Tanzania however, is demonstrating that with vision, careful planning and a socially responsible approach to manufacturing, it is possible to address many problems associated with factory jobs to a large extent. A to Z is a family-owned and -operated company that produces light manufacturing goods including garments, household plastics and long-lasting insecticide-treated bednets. The company stands out for its considered approach to the environment and to its workers’ well-being, and for striving to manufacture goods that not only are in demand but also have a long-term impact on improving and even saving lives. For these reasons, the factory has caught the attention of many high-profile figures (Bono, Will Smith and George W. Bush, to name a few), who have visited to see how a large manufacturing company can have direct and indirect development impacts on some of the poorest people in the world.
An overview of A to Z today
A true start-up success story, A to Z began with a single Indian entrepreneur and a sewing machine in the 1960s, expanding over 50 years to become a group of various companies that export goods to countries including the US, Canada, Japan and South Africa. A to Z operates in two separate locations in Arusha, imports via Mombasa and sells domestically, and to countries in the region (e.g. cement bags to Burundi – a great example of regional value chains).
It is also one of the largest vertically integrated manufacturing plants in East Africa, and the owners pride themselves on ‘innovative manufacturing’, which in this context is not only about improving productivity and using new technology but also about producing goods that contribute to saving lives and minimising negative impacts on the environment. Careful planning by the owners has led to a cluster effect within the factory grounds. This increases productivity, and almost all of the goods and services needed to produce their wide range of products are found on-site.
The factory employs over 7,000 people and takes responsibility for their workers – ensuring safe and comfortable working conditions and providing housing for eligible workers, safe transport for those travelling in, daily meals, classroom training to build skills and even a free on-site clinic, where nurses are available to carry out check-ups for the workers. With women representing over 65% of the workforce, the owners are aware of the responsibilities and challenges facing young mothers, and there is a free on-site crèche for workers with small children.
Creating socially and environmentally responsible transformational jobs
It can be argued that non-wage benefits like the ones mentioned above are becoming increasingly common in factories in low-income countries, particularly in foreign companies, which are under pressure to show they are socially responsible when setting up operations (CSR). For example, British-owned Hela Clothing (another major player in East Africa) provides free meals and a crèche in its Athi River plant, and Hawassa Industrial Park in Ethiopia employs high numbers of women and has a scheme to provide housing where it is needed. On the other hand, workers’ well-being can be linked to productivity – so taking care of them is a win-win.
What makes A to Z remarkable, however, is not only its contribution to Tanzanian economic transformation through the provision of large numbers of ‘good’ productive jobs but also the other socially beneficial aspects of its business model:
- Producing insecticide-treated bednets and agricultural storage bags: These specialist products help protect against malaria and reduce post-harvest losses. Many donors have supported production and development, including the US Agency for International Development, the UK Department for International Development and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
- An on-site recycling plant: This processes waste into plastic pellets, which are then reused in their own production. Rain water is also collected, and waste water is treated and reused.
- Research and development (R&D): Innovative manufacturing methods, which use science and technology to create products with positive development outcomes, are enhanced by the on-site Africa Technical Research Centre (built by A to Z in partnership with Sumitomo Chemicals), which is a recognised partner in the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) network.
Challenges of being a development-focused manufacturing company
Unsurprisingly, being a socially and environmentally responsible producer does not come easy. Increasing competition in the region, rising prices of raw materials and transport and other non-tariff barriers all push up the costs of importing inputs, and are putting pressure on the firm’s profitability. Despite this, A to Z reinvests up to 100% of its profits back into the business, to improve productivity using the latest machinery and to fund R&D.
From a wider industry perspective, issues related to recent changes in VAT policies (from zero-rated to exempt status) have directly and severely affected cashflow, and made job losses inevitable. Such unplanned policy changes (which do not appear within the national second Five-Year Development Plan for industrialisation and human development) can have unintended harmful effects on manufacturers that are creating exactly the kinds of jobs needed for successful economic transformation.
A to Z shows us that the private sector can support development goals through manufacturing jobs
A to Z’s operations are in line with many of the SDGs, and a tour of the factory feels like a real-life portrayal of the SDGs in action. By offering large numbers of jobs to young female workers, providing social protection, undertaking environmental impact-reducing activities and numerous community initiatives, the company is showing that industrialists do not always take the purely profit-driven approach that non-industrialists fear will harm workers and the environment in low-income countries. A to Z has acknowledged that industrialisation and manufacturing jobs alone are not enough to address poverty, and has taken steps to maximise positive development impacts in Tanzania, while producing goods that are in demand and create highly productive jobs. One example is its use of laser fabric-cutting machinery that requires 17 people to operate. Although it replaces approximately 25 manual cutters, the machine increases the hourly output rate, quality and volume of cut fabric, and in turn creates more demand for labour downstream (e.g. for stitching stage). This example challenges the growing fear of ‘jobless growth’ in Africa as a result of digitalisation.
Overall, although A to Z is not a typical case of an African or a foreign manufacturing firm, it is an extraordinary example that challenges some of the negative views surrounding industrialisation-led development. As concluded by Calabrese and Gelb (2017), industrialisation is not a choice – the response to the challenges of industrialisation is not to forego it but to do it faster and better. A to Z shows us that socially responsible industrialists do exist, and public (policy) actions to support their growth are essential for productive job creation, and transformation, in developing countries.
Photo credit (all rights reserved): A to Z, SET Programme, Overseas Development Institute ©