An official of the World Bank last week made an observation about the state of integration in east Africa that for the first time made me appreciate how detrimental our colonial-drown borders have been and continue to be on the lives of ordinary Africans.
During the launch of the third edition of Rwanda Economic Update, titled Leveraging Regional Integration, an official of the Bank said that most of the time Kenya government has had to go to Zambia to buy maize to boost its national food stocks. This happens while Ugandan and Rwanda farmers are stranded with no market for their surplus harvests.
Last year, when Kenyans desperately needed food following a devastating drought in the western parts of the country, Rwandan farmers were desperately looking for market for hundreds of thousands of tons of maize and beans that the local market could not absorb. In the process, the price of maize fell ridiculously low that local farmers could not recoup their investment.
The same story played out in Uganda with some farmers abandoning maize in gardens because it did not make sense to spend money and time to harvest a crop whose value was almost not there.
Yet all this is happening because there are colonial-made boundaries cutting across clans and sometimes families--separating those with plenty of food from relatives and friends without it. This is absurd!
According to this World Bank official, the only time farmers in Uganda can sell any maize across to Kenya is when they do it illegally. So at the end of it all, Uganda or Rwandan farmers lose out on what would be a good price for maize in Kenya while the Kenya government has to spend more buying maize all the way from Zambia.
Why should it easier for a member-country of the East African Community to buy food from Zambia than from another member of the community? Are we really sincere to each other when we talk about regional integration? Or is this so-called regional integration a matter of hotel-based conferences and workshops?
Unless EAC-member countries make bold moves to dismantle all barriers (tariff or otherwise) that inhibit free flow of goods and services across these colonial-made boundaries, the issue of integrating the region will remain a matter for government officials to sip coffee and tea over.
It sounds even ridiculous for officials to be talking about a monetary union--a more complex matter that means single currency and single payment system--when we cannot integrate simple things like agriculture and marketing.
I have always wondered what the government of Uganda would lose in monetary terms if it let cassava and maize farmers in eastern Uganda make money by selling their maize to Kenya unhindered. What would the government lose if it left the people of northern Uganda to sell their sorghum, sim sim and ground nuts to South Sudan?
While I appreciate the need to safeguard national revenue collection even as we integrate, there should be a mechanism that allows communities across borders to trade in those items that are grown locally, such as food.
Not only does this improve the distribution of food from areas of plenty to those where it is scarce, but also stimulates production and wealth creation among rural farmers in the region.
When we open up markets for agricultural products through which farmers can directly exploit, it helps boost incomes for rural people who in turn can afford to spend on other good such as manufactured products.
And while they spend on these manufactured good, they are paying taxes which are embedded in the prices of these goods. On the other had, by consuming local products, they are also ensuring the industries that make such goods keep in business--expanding and hiring more people. That means they also help create jobs.
It is therefore counter productive to put up any roadblocks that prohibit free trade among the poorest of the people in our countries.