14 December 2015

Kenya's Push for Fair Deals in WTO Conference Gives Local Farmers Hope

Photo: WTO. Courtesy of Admedia Communication.
Day 1 of the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference, Nairobi, 15 December 2015

Kenyan farmers -- may they be coffee, tea, or sugar growers -- stand to gain little from the World Trade Organisation meeting which starts in Nairobi on Monday.

The 10th ministerial conference of the WTO is being attended by 3,000 delegates and Kenya is hoping that it will tackle issues to do with barriers to international trade, regulations on sensitive technology and agricultural subsidies paid by rich countries to their farmers.

A brief by the Kenyan delegation headed by Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Karanja Kibicho shows that Kenya will seek "reduction of distortions in international agricultural trade, non-agricultural market access (Nama) and trade in services".

"The WTO has a litany of sensitive issues to tackle, ranging from rules for agricultural products to the position of developing and least developed countries," the brief states, arguing that despite Africa having half of its population as small-holder farmers, it still imports 83 per cent of food.

In Kenya, agriculture directly employs seven out of 10 people and the brief states that accessing markets for their produce is key to national development strategy.


But fair trade campaigners are not convinced.

First, campaigning against subsidies in Europe, America and Japan is a lost cause.

Subsidies are issues of domestic politics and few politicians have the stomach for a fight with their farmers.

Activists are also not certain that Kenya's rather woolly agenda strongly represents the interests of tens of millions of impoverished farmers and even if it did whether the rich countries are interested in solving other people's problems.

For example, in the case of coffee, which involved the outright theft of Kenyan farmers' value by multinational farmers in cahoots with local elites, there is no specific effort to address countries which unfairly benefit from the sweat of coffee growers.

WTO is big on intellectual property, but Kenya is unlikely to make any specific efforts to demand royalties from reputable companies which profit from the brand value of Kenyan coffee free of charge.


But it is products such as tea which expose the hypocrisy of rich countries claiming they want to help poor countries but escalate tariffs for processed products.

Making it easy for poor countries to add value to agricultural products would have ensured that farmers are paid more and jobs are created.

By last evening, 100 heads of delegations had already touched down.

The meeting, christened MC10, brings together commerce and trade ministers or their representatives from the 162 member countries of the WTO.

Activists and trading blocs such as Comesa or the East African Community will also be represented in the meeting.

"During the conference, developing countries are expected to argue for the review of agricultural subsidies, offered by developed nations to their farmers, which create an unfair trade environment for farmers in poorer nations," says the Kenyan brief.

The Kenyan delegation argues that it is these subsidies that killed the Kenyan cotton sector.

But negotiations on these issues known as the Doha Round of Talks, seem to have stalled as developing and developed countries pull away.

"Whatever we do, we have to have the interests of the businessmen. How are the businessmen going to benefit from this agreement? If they are not going to benefit from it we don't support the agreement," Mr Nelson Ndirangu, the Director of Economic Affairs and International Trade at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Nation on Sunday.

He went on: "If we are talking about selling tilapia to Europe for example, we will be fighting for sanitary measures that will allow you to sell easily to Europe.

"When we are discussing those standards, we don't want to arrive at standards which are unattainable. They have to be standards that our people can meet because first and foremost is the business interests of our people."


Not everyone is convinced that local farmers will be saved by the conference.

"The fact remains that the global trading system favours the rich countries. And where there have been opportunities for the countries in the south to take advantage of the trading system, we simply have not been able to do so," argues Kenya's former ambassador to the US Elkanah Odembo.

He continues: "The G7, without exception, will continue to subsidise their farmers, and agricultural systems. They will continue to do so because it makes local political and economic sense. Global trading systems cannot compete with local realities in the G7 countries."

During the run-up to the conference, Kenya had reached out to the group to relax the subsidies in the interest of levelling the playing field in international trade. Mr Odembo, who served in Washington during the Mwai Kibaki regime, argued the subsidies determine political survival for leaders in the West.

Yesterday, activists under the umbrella of Social Movement Working Group against WTO charged that Kenya and Africa as a whole should pull out of the WTO because they have been getting a raw deal.

"Seeking to push issues like Trade Facilitation will not address the skewed nature of the WTO agreements as they will only serve to facilitate the multinationals to continue dominating the fragile Kenyan market at the expense of local entrepreneurs," the activists said in a statement last evening.

The Working Group, which includes Kenyan and international NGOs, charge that the issues Kenya is proposing are more market-driven and not driven by the urge to protect local farmers and consumers.

Foreign Affairs CS Amina Mohamed, who will chair the conference, admitted the flaws in the WTO but argued the conference offers a chance to better it.

"We have taken a lot of time on these issues and hopefully we will not take the time that is longer than it is prescribed. We expect a good outcome. We expect it to be a realistic outcome and we expect it to be an implementable outcome.

"It is time to modernise the WTO. It is time the WTO became the centre of multilateral negotiations. We haven't had proper time to do business within the WTO," she told a press conference at the KICC.

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