The chief executive of the East African Business Council Peter Mathuki spoke with Patty Magubira on the region’s economic prospects for 2019.
What challenges did the business community face in 2018?
There were a number of challenges, most of them compounded by protectionist approaches that hindered trade within the East African Community.
EAC intra-trade stood at only 20 per cent of the total, compared with 46 per cent in the Southern African Development Community, and 67 per cent in the European Union.
We have partly implemented the Common Market Protocol, which helped the EAC become the fastest growing regional economic bloc.
But there is still a lot to be done. The protocol cannot be effectively implemented when it is not in line with national laws. Sensitisation on the protocol is equally important.
How does EABC plan to deal with these challenges?
We will continually engage the EAC partner states and all EAC organs to ensure that infrastructure is enhanced, non-tariff barriers are removed and double taxation is waived.
We will also encourage countries to strengthen national airlines and make travel within the region easy and affordable.
Not all countries have national carriers, thus there is a reluctance to open up their air spaces. This has opened the doors for foreign airlines to benefit from the region’s airspace at the expense of national governments.
The EABC will also take a lead role in the Continental Free Trade Area with an eye to opening up new markets for businesses. The council will mobilise the private sector to support partner states in endorsing the agreement.
What are the EABC plans for 2019?
The EABC hopes to expand its membership base. Currently, we have around 150 members. We are looking to raise that number to 500.
We will divide the EABC into five departments in order to strengthen it: The service department, which will tackle tourism, airspace and telecommunication; manufacturing; agriculture; energy and infrastructure department to support growth and trade facilitation; and the SMEs department, to attract small and medium players to join the Council.
We are repositioning the EABC and coming up with attractive business models to help businesses grow their networks.
Trade is becoming regional and international. For a business to thrive, it needs a platform with networks.
EABC will also advocate for one mobile network area for data, SMS, roaming and financial services.
If we open up communication, people will be able to talk and make money. We will continue to organise major events in 2019, including the international entrepreneurship conference slated for Kampala, Uganda, in May, and the manufacturers’ conference towards the end of the year.
EABC will also appoint diaspora chapters in Japan, EU, US and the Middle East to ensure they become our focal points.
What about the EABC’s long-cherished plan to have its own roof?
We are still talking to authorities to see how they can accommodate the plan for the EABC to have its permanent residence in Arusha — a unique place where most of Africa’s peace agreements were reached.
What is your position on South Sudan and other EAC neighbours regarding regional trade?
I see a huge opportunity for South Sudan in the regional integration agenda. Once peace is fully attained, it will spur the manufacturing sector. Their first market will be their neighbours.
We are encouraging Ethiopia to become part of the EAC. With 100 million people, Ethiopia is a huge market.
Somalia’s application for the EAC membership is still under consideration. They can be assisted in some of the challenges they are facing. It is difficult to help them when they are out of the bloc.
Regional integration and formation of economic blocs is the modern trend, no country will be in isolation.
We are concerned about Burundi because it is part of us. We have to help them get out of their political challenge.
The Treaty provides for the principle of asymmetry, but does not say we are not together; rather, it gives time for others to catch up.
How can countries boost the integration process?
There is a lot of optimism. Challenges are inevitable but they can be overcome for as long as there is willpower.
When you go to the borders, ordinary East Africans want to move on. All they need is facilitation.
If the EAC, governments, private sector and all other stakeholders become messengers of the founding fathers’ vision, we will be one of the world’s super-regional economic blocs in 10 years.
I see one borderless East Africa and ultimately one borderless Africa when it comes to business or the movement of people.