Rwandans, Ugandans and Kenyans will soon be free to set up businesses across borders without any restrictions once the three East African countries have endorsed a new deal seeking to open up their job markets to each other.
The memorandum of understanding, due to be signed in October in Kampala under the Northern Corridor Initiative, aims at eliminating all restrictions to free movement of labour and capital among the tripartite members of the broader East African Community.
If endorsed, professionals such as media practitioners, lawyers, doctors and teachers will be free to establish their businesses in any of the three partner states and accorded the same rights and treatment as nationals.
The new initiative seeks to remove any remaining restrictions to the free movement of labour and capital under the East African Common Market Protocol.
Although EAC partner states agreed in principle to free movement of labour, partner states only opened up those areas they felt faced shortage of local capacity. For example, Rwanda allows in only technicians and a few other professional fields such as health.
"Professionals will be allowed to operate in the country and will be subjected to equal treatment as nationals," Monique Mukaruliza, Rwanda's national coordinator of Northern Corridor projects, told this paper last week.
The aim, according to Mukaruliza, is to enable the three partner states to get skilled labour and minimise dependency on experts from outside the community.
"Although some Rwandans are allowed to work in the other countries as foreign employees, the current arrangement does not allow them to start up their own firms or businesses. What we want under the new memorandum is total liberalisation of the market," she added.
Francois Ngoboka, the director of labour, research and employment promotion at the Ministry of Labour and Public Service, said this will enable the country attract professionals and investments into critical sectors.
He highlighted sectors such as construction and infrastructure, manufacturing, mining and health as those that need more investments and skilled manpower.
"We lack enough competent domestic investors and opening the market to our neighbours will help transfer expertise to local manpower," he said.
He said it is easier to outsource skills from the region than from outside the Community.
Currently, about 64 per cent of foreign experts in Rwanda are from East Africa.
Alexander Twahirwa, the director of labour administration, said draft standards that will govern the initiative will be discussed at a meeting scheduled in Nairobi next month.
Each country is currently carrying out a manpower survey to ascertain the gaps and opportunities in various sectors.
A labour market information system will then be established where partner states will publish areas where they need expertise for citizens in other member countries to apply.
"We will also discuss all the barriers and challenges that employees face while working in other countries and come up with possible solutions before the total liberalisation of the market commences," he said.
Jean Nepomuscene Mugengangabo, a commercial lawyer at Bona Fide Law Chambers in Kigali, said despite the good intentions, Rwandans will face some challenges.
He cited his profession where he said lawyers in other countries are more experienced compared to Rwandan lawyers, making it difficult for Rwandans to favourably compete in those countries.
"Many of our regional counterparts are more experienced than us. For instance, our Bar Association has been in place for only 17 years, while other Bar Associations in the region have existed for more than 70 years," he said.
He added that Uganda and Kenya use English in their courts, while Rwandans still argue cases in Kinyarwanda, the local dialect.
"How can we open firms outside Rwanda when many Rwandan lawyers have no professional English background?" Mugengangabo asked.
Under the auspices of the Northern Corridor, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya have implemented several projects to deepen integration. They include the use of national IDs to cross borders, single tourist visa for foreigners touring the three countries, as well as the single customs territory that has made the movement of goods faster among member states.