Wednesday, July 22, 2009



By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
July 22, 2009

In two weeks time, nearly 300 high level American businessmen descend on Nairobi for the Agoa round table meeting. This is not to mention a retinue of elaborate state department security for Hilary Clinton; former First Lady now turned American Secretary of State for International Affairs.

At a glance, Kenya is looking forward to at least 2000 highly priced businessmen that will be in the capital for a week with a good possibility of leaving some of their dollars behind. Obviously it will be boom time for hoteliers, tour operators, airlines, taxi drivers and even vendors on our streets.

The fact that the Kenya government is prepared to spend US $ 9 in purchasing new apartments for our prized guests just goes on to prove how seriously the government is taking the Agoa meeting. It reminds me of the fortunes Nigeria and Uganda spent a few years ago when they last hosted the Commonwealth summits in Abuja and Kampala; something the two countries have never gotten over regarding audit queries.

In Kenya, the $ 9 million budget for new apartments is already raising eyebrows in government and civil society circles considering that Nairobi is awash with countless five star hotels that can accommodate most of the Agoa dignitaries including Hilary Clinton.

Costs and controversies aside, how prepared are we as East Africans for the Agoa negotiations?

Going by past experiences, especially during the WTO negotiations, one expects American officials and businessmen to arrive in Nairobi armed with tough and experienced negotiators. They will most definitely be accompanied by legal, economic, environmental and international trade experts because like the hardnosed bargainers that they are, they will not leave anything to chance.

As the EAC member states prepare for the Common Market in January 2010, one would like to imagine that in this crucial international trade meeting, they will have jointly prepared in advance and developed a common position paper in doing business with Americans. It will be a tragedy if Ugandans, Tanzanians, Burundians and Rwandans came to the table as separate entities because Americans are very good at disorganizing regional blocks in their own interests.

This brings me to my next point. As our regional experts have been busy burning the midnight oil to make the EAC Common Market a reality in January 2010, the behavior of some of our leaders in East Africa has been perplexing if not confusing.

Take the case of the Kenya annual prayer meeting held in Nairobi a month ago. As Paul Kagame was feted in Nairobi as the key note speaker, Kaguta Museveni found it convenient to meet the Burundian president the same day for bilateral talks. One wonders whether, the Ugandan president was invited to the prayer meeting even though the Migingo debate was raging at the time. My personal take on this is that he should have been invited.

Early this week, we saw President Kibaki visit Jakaya Kikwete for the same purpose. The question to ask is this: What is the use of these bilateral talks and agreements if we are all moving together to create a Common Market and common currency in two years time? Aren’t we duplicating if not wasting efforts on these lone range maneuvers?

If you ask me, this region should not merely concentrate on American cotton market that hungers for the region’s cheaply made cotton clothing. Being an industrialized society, Americans are also one of the most health conscious nations on earth.

Our strive to diversify our export commodities to the US should include horticulture, home grown natural foods such as road-runner chicken, goat meat reared in the deserts of arid Northern Kenya, beef from Masai and Turkana cattle and bananas from Uganda and Rwanda to boost our exports to this great nation. It is the duty of our negotiators to convince the Americans that these commodities are available and meet international health standards.

However, as we prepare for our American business partners, let us put a semblance of order in our governance structures. Let us deal with the nagging issues of impunity, rampant corruption and entrenched mismanagement of our resources in our region. If we cannot deal insecurity, graft and rampant greed in our systems, Americans are likely to take the cue from their president that this region is hostile to international business.

Yes, we are yearning for American markets but have we thought of impressing it upon the coming American businessmen to invest real dollars in our region?

As I listened to a Kenyan IT icon, Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard University give a lecture on Innovative Technology, I wondered aloud how prepared we are to conduct business in the area of innovative technology like windmills, IT villages, solar power, rain harvesting, food production and healthcare programmes that can change the lives of millions of our people!

These are the areas we can ask the Americans to invest in as we export our cotton clothes and sweet potatoes to them. Let us ask them to help us turn our universities into industry based research institutions that can produce entrepreneurs that will in turn create jobs instead of producing worthless unemployable degree holders in theology and anthropology. Let us use Agoa to inch us one more step to a developed world status.