Despite growth averaging more than 5% a year since the turn of the century, sub-Saharan Africa’s economies remain largely noncompetitive: only three of the region’s countries – Mauritius (46th), South Africa (49th) and Rwanda (58th) three – rank in the top half of the 2015-2016 edition of the Global Competitiveness Index, and they occupy 15 of the bottom 20 places.

In general, the region has made progress in efficiency-enhancing market reform, especially in goods market, but has much more to do to improve its institutions, infrastructure, and health and education sectors, all areas in which reforms will take time to reap benefits. With a coming youth bulge – by 2035, more people will be reaching working age in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world put together – the need to improve education systems is especially urgent.

The recent fall in commodity prices, putting more pressure on many countries in the region, has also accentuated the need to prioritize competitiveness-enhancing reforms.

Mauritius. Although still the top-ranked country in sub-Saharan Africa, Mauritius dropped seven places to 46th (out of 140) in the overall rankings this year – the first fall down the Index after a decade of improvements. This is accounted for important drops in three of the 12 pillars (overall six pillars are losing places) on which the Index is based, labour market efficiency, financial market development and market size. Still, some fundamentals remain strong: Mauritius has the region’s most efficient goods market, best infrastructure and most healthy and educated workforce. To move further up the development ladder it particularly needs to improve the quality of higher education, the rate at which it adopts new technologies and its capacity to nurture innovation.

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South Africa. Moving in the opposite direction to Mauritius, South Africa climbs seven places to 49th. It has improved year-on-year in its uptake of ICTs and established itself as the region’s most innovative economy. South Africa also tops the region for the efficiency of its financial markets, a pillar on which it ranks 12th globally. It performs reasonably strongly on the pillars of infrastructure and institutions, although corruption and security remain concerns, but needs to make progress on health and education.

Rwanda. Advancing four places for the second year in a row, Rwanda’s overall position of 58th reflects improvements in the financial development pillar – especially regulation of securities exchanges – and business sophistication. It scores 8th globally for labour market efficiency, thanks in part to the third-highest female labour participation rate in the world, and 17th globally for the strength of its public and private institutions. However, improvements are needed in some fundamental areas of competitiveness including infrastructure, health and higher education.

Botswana. Up three places to 71st, Botswana posts a top-10 score globally for the stability of its macroeconomic environment. It also boasts relatively strong rankings on institutions and labour market efficiency. Despite some improvements in the last year, however, the health and primary education pillar remains its weakest, with the impact of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis contributing to the second-lowest life expectancy among the 140 economies surveyed.

Namibia. Advancing for the third year in a row, Namibia gains three places to rank 85th in the global Index. It registered year-on-year improvements in nine of the 12 pillars, most notably business sophistication and innovation – albeit from a low base. It improved its score on its strongest pillar, institutions, but slipped back on its weakest, health and primary education; as in Botswana, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS remain among the biggest concerns.

Cote d’Ivoire. Leaping 24 places in the last year alone to reach 91st in the overall Index, Cote d’Ivoire has now progressed 40 places in the last three years. It has improved year-on-year on every pillar except for the macroeconomic environment, posting its biggest gains in areas such as innovation, financial market development and institutions – all pillars on which it scores in the top half globally. Despite progress also in health and primary education and higher education and training, they remain its weakest area.

Zambia. Although occupying the same position in the Index as last year, 96th, Zambia has noticeably progressed on some pillars while regressing on others. It has improved its score on macroeconomic stability, for example, with progress on the government budget balance – albeit from a low base – and public debt. However, it drops heavily on the pillars of business sophistication, goods market efficiency and financial market development.

Seychelles. Despite being considerably wealthier than the seven countries in the region that rank as more competitive, the Seychelles loses ground for the third year in a row, dropping five places to 97th overall. The country’s competitiveness is held back by a small market size, scoring bottom globally on this pillar. However, it still ranks in the top half globally on seven of the 12 pillars, with its strongest performances coming on infrastructure (2nd best in the region) and labour market efficiency. It also does well on technological readiness (71st, although low performing second in regional comparison).

Kenya. After two years of forward movement in the Index, Kenya slips nine places to 99th with regressions on three pillars in particular: goods market efficiency, financial market development and institutions. Corruption remains the top concern about doing business in the country, according to executives who took part in a survey which forms part of the Index calculations. Despite the decline, financial market development remains one of Kenya’s three strongest pillars, along with innovation and labour market efficiency; its weakest are the macroeconomic environment and, despite a small improvement in the last year, health and primary education.

Gabon. Improving slightly to 103rd overall, Gabon’s main strength is its macroeconomic environment, which is rated among the world’s top 20 thanks to a positive budget balance and low levels of government debt, reflective of its resource-driven economy. However, this is the only pillar on which Gabon ranks in the top half globally, and it ranks among the world’s bottom 20 on four pillars: goods market efficiency, higher education and training, business sophistication and innovation. To diversify its economy, it needs to invest in productivity-enhancing reforms across the board.

The Global Competitiveness Report 2015-2016 is available here

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Author: Caroline Galvan, Economist, Global Competitiveness and Risks, World Economic Forum

Image: A woman walks down a hill to Port Louis, Mauritius. REUTERS/Ed Harris