The Star (Nairobi)

26 February 2013

Africa: The Missing Link in Kenya?s Takeoff

In the last ten or so years, the world has turned its attention to Africa as a promising place for economic growth. With nearly one (1) billion consumers, Africa remains a highly viable investment destination. Africa is also home to the world's fastest growing economies.

Kenya is among the top ten (10) preferred investment destinations in the continent. Indeed Kenya has been described as an economy on the verge of "A Tipping Point". The resilience displayed by the economy even in the midst of the financial crises in Europe and America confirms this. The vet balance is always negative for us, this is not sustainable as we must always borrow expensively to bridge the capital gap.

It is instructive to note that with this much hyped investment potential, comes the danger of increased impoverishment of our people, unless the trend of unfavorable trade balance is checked. A quick look at our majors trading partners from Europe, Asia and South Africa shows trade balance in their favors.

We are clearly and simply importing too much! The little gains from tourism, ICT revolution, agricultural exports and diaspora remittances are quickly eroded as the Forex is used to pay for imports, most of which are not strategic at all. To power "real" industrial take off, we must save up capital.

Why do we continue to import cheap plastic toys, furniture, cheap synthetic clothing, cheap and indeed dangerous cosmetics and thousands of other non-essential products? Simply because there is a market and it's a quick way for traders to make an extra buck. We have a huge appetite for these imports. Our traders use millions, flying to all manner of destinations to bring these cheap imports, a trend that continues to deplete our Forex.

To stem this unfavourable trade imbalance, we must make conscious choices to buy more of Kenyan products. We need to support and promote our informal (jua kali) industry. Indeed, many of our jua kali products are of far superior quality than these imports. Though for some, improvement in quality and packaging is all that is needed.

Our traders must re-focus and approach business with a more long term mindset of nurturing and supporting start- ups and small and micro-enterprises. We should go more for export business rather than the import. Needless to say for real development to take root, states must save up enough capital to finance investments. Such savings cannot happen in a climate of run away non essential consumption.

Our national mindset towards land ownership, wealth and success also needs to change. The subdivision of agricultural land to small unproductive pieces is no longer tenable. It threatens to make us a food deficit economy paving way for more imports. Only last week did we receive reports that India had overtaken UAE as a source of imports into Kenya. What we must all remember is that, all these countries focusing on Kenya have one underlying objective,to make their lot better! We must also start to think about making ourselves better sustainably.

As the county governments take shape, the conversation on Kenya's industrial take off must remain at the centre of their polices. More attention must be put to the local manufacturing sector with incentives to local industries and clear policies on value adding, quality and packaging.

In the meantime, we the citizens must do our part. We must rekindle our mantra of "Buy Kenya Build Kenya". This is the one true way for our "Take Off".

The writer is the Chief Executive Officer, Brand Kenya Board.

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