In Africa, Cotton Remains Strategic Crop As Electronic Components Trade Drives Tech Growth

By Akanimo Sampson

Demand for electronic components used in Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices drove the value of trade in international imports of information and communications technology (ICT) goods in 2017 to reach $2.1 trillion, according to new figures released by the United Nations Conference on Trade And Development (UNCTAD).

The news broke as cotton remains a strategic crop in Africa, especially for countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. It generates export revenues, as well as employment and income for families in rural areas.

Nevertheless, in many countries, cotton production has dwindled in recent years. This is due, in part, to the declining returns that farmers derive from its cultivation.

This project which is however, funded by the UN Development Account, aims to develop the cotton by-products sector in four countries – Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe – to create economic opportunities, increase value addition and increase the total income that farmers earn from growing cotton.

The resulting increase in cotton production could help reinvigorate the cotton value chain in the four countries and the Eastern and Southern Africa region.

UNCTAD is implementing the project, in partnership with the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).

Objective: To strengthen the capacity of selected countries in Eastern and Southern Africa to assess the economic viability of the development of cotton by-products and formulate evidence-based policies that promote their value addition.

Expected outcome:

  • Improved capacity of cotton value chain stakeholders, including government officials, the private sector and farmers’ associations in target beneficiary countries to assess the potential value, market situation and prospects for cotton by-products.
  • Improved capacity of policymakers in the beneficiary countries/region to:
     (a) formulate evidence-based policies that promote the value addition of cotton by-products; and
     (b) devise investment profiles to attract potential investors.

However, trade in ICT goods grew slightly faster than merchandise trade and represented 13.4% of the total in 2017, down from the 16.1% high during the dot-com boom in 2000 but the highest in two years.

By comparison, in 2017 machinery and transport equipment accounted for 37% and food for 8% of merchandise imports.

“This is the first time that global ICT goods imports have rebounded since 2014, showing a good 6% annual growth and bringing a reprieve to the past two years of decline,” Shamika N. Sirimanne, Director of the Technology and Logistics Division at UNCTAD, said.

“The expansion of electronic components, which are the basic building blocks of electronic circuits and semiconductors, reflects the fact that more and more products and activities are going digital worldwide. Much of this trend can be associated with the advent of the IoT, which has witnessed unprecedented growth since 2015. This trend may be further accentuated in the coming years,” Ms. Sirimanne said.

While China is by far the largest exporter of ICT goods, the Republic of Korea boasted the highest growth rate among the top 10 exporters in 2017. Exports also grew significantly for all the other top ten exporters, except the United States. The market share of the top 10 exporters was about 86% in 2017.

Meanwhile, the United States is the top importer followed closely by China and Hong Kong (China). Mexico was the only economy among the top 10 where ICT goods imports did not grow in 2017.

The share of intra-industry trade remains high in this sector, with interdependence between the big Asian, North American and European players, and the top importers typically also feature among the top exporters of ICT goods.

Top 10 importers and exporters of ICT goods, million US dollars, 2017 and annual growth rate (2016-2017)

Top 10 exporters20172016-2017
2Korea, Republic of14192529%
3China, Taiwan Province of13920615%
6United States of America685770%
Top 10 importers20172016-2017
1United States of America3436509%
3China, Hong Kong SAR30561511%
7Korea, Republic of7186113%
8China, Taiwan Province of6392318%

ICT goods imports to developed economies showed 10% annual growth while ICT goods imports to economies in transition in South East Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States grew by 29%.

This growth is significantly more than in developing economies – 3% – while in the 47 Least Developed Countries they dropped by a hefty 30%. In 2017, Eastern Asia accentuated its role as the leading export hub, while Africa, Southern and Western Asia all saw significant declines.

However, at 54% market share, developing economies import more than developed economies because they have a more significant role in assembling ICT goods and so import significantly more electronic components.

Developing countries also show a stronger preference for communication equipment over computers and peripherals, in line with the implementation of mobile-first strategies. On the other hand, the shopping basket is more balanced between the different ICT product categories in developed economies.

Imports of ICT goods by region, million US dollars, 2017, annual growth rate (2016-2017)

 2017Change 2016-2017
Grouping/ RegionExportsImportsExportsImports
Developed economies4435649506027%10%
Transition economies30192917428%29%
Developing economies118562211471283%3%
   Latin America and the Caribbean674651051097%3%
   Asia and Oceania111546110243583%3%
      Eastern Asia89411977144714%12%
      Southern Asia2615473783%27%
      South-Eastern Asia216337172585-25%-22%
      Western Asia238832787-12%-26%

Note: Values adjusted for re-imports and re-exports
Source: UNCTADStat