The chemicals industry and its products have many potential benefits particularly related to improving and sustaining human capital through new opportunities for employment, improved health and nutrition. At the same time the production and use of chemicals creates risks at all stages of their life cycle. The generation and release of intentionally and unintentionally produced chemicals, has contributed to environmental contamination and degradation at multiple levels – local, regional and global – and in many instances the impact will continue to be felt for generations.


Growth in the industrial sector creates new opportunities for employment and can also help diversify the economy. This is especially important given the high level of urbanization, and growing levels of unemployment and poverty in many cities. Unemployment is particularly high and an important factor in continued levels of low human well-being and slow growth: in 2003 the average rate of unemployment was 10.9 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and 10.4 per cent in North Africa and these percentages have remained relatively stable over the last ten years (ECA 2005). Women and youth are among the most disadvantaged. These figures do not include those that are unemployed but not actively seeking employment.

Africa needs to find opportunities for expanding its industrial sector. The US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, for example, provides some trade preferences that the chemicals sector in Africa could use.


The development of new chemical products is closely linked to investment in research. Currently most research takes place in developed countries and within large multinational companies. Investments in this area can help expand Africa’s share of trade, especially in potential niche markets such as naturally-derived pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Africa, along with other countries in the tropics, is a major source of genetic resources that could support a growing localized industry and ensure that a higher percentage of the profits generated from pharmaceuticals remain in Africa. The development potential of the pharmaceutical industry is closely related to biodiversity, and research and development activities in this area. Opportunities associated with this development are discussed in Chapter 1: The Human Dimension and Chapter 6: Forests and Woodlands. It is estimated that less than 1 per cent of the world’s 250,000 tropical plants has been screened for potential pharmaceutical applications (Groombridge and Jenkins 2002). At current extinction rates of plants and animals, the Earth is potentially losing one major drug every two years. Africa could effectively link the development of the pharmaceutical sector to its objectives of sustainable use of biodiversity.

Additionally, such investment may have positive spinoffs in other sectors – for example making medicinal care more accessible. In Africa many cannot afford commercially produced medicine, in Western Africa, for example, as many as 80 per cent of the people depend on traditional medicines (IDRC undated). Africa’s market share in pharmaceuticals accounted for only 1.3 per cent in 1997, with the total trade worth about US$291 million million (Kanali 1998).

Africa needs to be strategic about its research investments in this area. On the one hand increasing its share of global trade is important; on the other it needs to focus on meeting urgent health needs within Africa. Research partnerships, including multilateral and public-private-partnerships, as well as the regional or sub-regional pooling of resources can be important factors in creating a resource base for effective research and innovation (UN Millennium Project 2005b).