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Africa Weekly\Cover Story

Kenya needs to develop a better trade strategy

By Anzetse Were | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2018-06-01 08:59

The government and private sector ought to become more proactive in meeting market demand in China

Two weeks ago, Kenya stopped short of signing a free trade agreement that China has been negotiating with the East African Community since 2016. The core motivation for the rejection seems to be seated in the intent to protect Kenya's nascent manufacturing sector from being dominated by China's massive and efficient manufacturing sector.

This development highlights the concerns Kenya has with the balance of trade between the two countries. According to the newspaper The East African, China accounts for less than 2 percent of Kenya's exports, yet 25 percent of the country's import bill is from China. Last year, Kenya exported goods worth $99.76 million to China but imported goods worth $3.37 billion, resulting in a trade deficit of $3.2 billion. Between January and May 2017 alone, Kenya imported goods each month worth an average of $348.9 million from China.

However, it ought to be considered that the trade deficit between Kenya and China exists not necessarily because China is pursuing it deliberately, but because China is better at producing what Kenya wants than Kenya is at producing what China wants. The trade deficit is arguably the result of market supply and demand dynamics. Top products imported from China, accounting for more than 50 percent, include machinery, railway stock, iron and steel, vehicles and plastics. The truth is that Kenya doesn't, for the most part, manufacture these and thus imports them from China.

Kenya needs to develop a better trade strategy

Sadly with China, Kenya is sticking to the usual yet unwise path of exporting raw materials and importing manufactured goods - a reality that reflects the weakness of manufacturing capacity in Kenya and Africa as a whole. And sadly, even in the export of raw produce such as fish, where there is growing demand in China, Kenya is not exploiting the opportunity. Kenya fish output dropped by 10.2 percent in 2016, compromising the country's ability to exploit the demand in China.

The trade dynamics between Kenya and China accentuate the importance for Kenya to shift current behavior to one that strengthens the country's position. The first step is to enforce local content laws to limit the importation of goods in public projects and, rather, procure goods manufactured locally. The good news is that there seems to be indication that for the next phase of the development of the standard gauge railway, local purchases will not be lower than 40 percent of total procurement. These types of provisions are important because they provide a market for Kenyan manufactured goods, thereby boosting manufacturing activity. But they also highlight the extent to which local manufacturers can (or cannot) meet large orders consistently, which provides valuable lessons on what the country needs to do to improve industrial capacity.

Second, Kenya needs to take advantage of the off-shoring of manufacturing capacity from China to other parts of the world. Partly informed by rising wages, China has been increasingly automating and off-shoring manufacturing, and Africa is benefiting from the latter to a certain extent. A report by McKinsey last year indicated that 31 percent of Chinese companies in Africa are in manufacturing, and they already handle about 12 percent of industrial production in Africa, with annual revenues of about$60 billion; revenues in manufacturing outstrip those of any other sectors listed. If Chinese private sector companies are domesticating manufacturing capacity from China, then indigenous Kenyan companies can do the same. The constraints preventing this ought to be analyzed and addressed

Third, Kenya needs to develop a trade strategy for China. The government needs to audit products with growing Chinese demand and seek to build Kenyan capacity to better exploit market opportunities presented by China. Kenyan producers ought to better leverage opportunities such as the China International Import Expo, to be held in Shanghai in November, and work with the Chinese embassy to exploit opportunities and tap into supplying the domestic market in China, thereby increasing the country's exports to China.

Finally, Kenya should focus on revenue streams coming from China and strengthen these. Tourism is a massive opportunity for Kenya; hotel bed-nights of Chinese tourists to Kenya increased by 45.8 percent last year compared with 2016. The government and private sector should try to better understand the needs of Chinese tourists and more aggressively market Kenya as a tourist destination in China.

In short, given Kenya's concerns about the growing trade deficit with China, the government and private sector ought to become more proactive in meeting market demand in China. The concern should provide impetus for the country to do the hard work of building manufacturing capacity as well as better understanding the Chinese market and leveraging diplomatic and private sector ties to achieve clearly defined trade strategies and goals.

The author is a development economist. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 06/01/2018 page9)

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