The Democratic Republic of Congo has applied to join the East African Community in a move that could potentially expand the boundaries of the trading bloc to the Atlantic coast of Africa.
The application comes following months of talks between DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi and Rwanda President Paul Kagame, who chairs the East African Community.
Sources familiar with the diplomatic talks that preceded the formal application say most EAC member states are enthusiastic about DR Congo's membership.
The DRC officially communicated its intention to join the EAC in a letter to President Kagame dated June 8. Kinshasa said its desire to join the bloc was informed by its increasing trade ties with the region.
In response, President Kagame directed the EAC Secretariat to table DR Congo's application for discussion at the next Heads of State Summit in November.
If it meets the admission requirements, members will vote on its admission.
The potential membership of the Central African country is being viewed as a game-changer, given its natural resources wealth and a huge consumer market of 81 million people.
It is the world's biggest producer of cobalt, a major component in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles, and Africa's main copper producer. It also a major producer of gold, diamonds, uranium, coltan, oil and other precious metals, making it one of the most resource-rich countries in the world.
DR Congo is also host to the world's second-longest river, the Congo, vast swathes of fertile soil, potentially making it one of the biggest agricultural producers in the world.
DR Congo's membership in the EAC, if fast-tracked and fully integrated through key infrastructure, also portends a timely pillar not only for the region but also for the bigger Africa Continental Free Trade Area.
"DR Congo's membership offers the potential of opening a vast trading and communication corridor right across the middle of Africa from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean," said Jeremiah Owiti, a Nairobi-based policy analyst.
President Tshisekedi has, since his inauguration in January, shown keen interest in the EAC, and has officially visited five member states -- Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. He even attempted to mediate between Rwanda and Uganda.
The Treaty establishing the EAC stipulates that new members be admitted on condition that they respect the principles of democracy, rule of law, accountability, transparency and social justice.
The Treaty also demands that the applicants, besides being geographically near any of the existing members, practise "equal opportunities, gender equality as well as recognise, promote and protect rights in accordance with the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights."
Patience Mutesi, the Rwanda country director for TradeMark East Africa, welcomed DR Congo's application, saying a larger EAC market means more opportunities for traders and consumers.
DR Congo offers a market almost half the size of the entire EAC, and will also seek to export to the region.
Data from the Uganda Trade Ministry shows the country exported $398 million's worth of goods to DR Congo in 2018, and plans to increase that to $2 billion by 2020. However, Uganda only imported goods worth $2.5 million from DR Congo.
In Rwanda, exports to DR Congo were $456.8 million in 2018, against $11.2 million's worth of imports, according to central bank statistics. Tanzania's exports to the Central African nation were $153 million in 2017, while imports were $1 million, according to the Bank of Tanzania. Kenya sold goods worth $150 million to DR Congo in 2018 and imported $12 million's worth of goods, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.
Despite the huge trade potential, DR Congo remains a volatile nation, fraught with internal strife and persistent outbreaks of deadly diseases such as Ebola, which has killed more than 1,200 people since last year.
DR Congo's eastern region remains a hotbed of rebel activity and close to one million Congolese have fled the country, while 4.5 million others are internally displaced.