The untapped economic potential of Diaspora

Last year, County Governments in Kenya scrambled to prepare their first County Integrated Development Plans (CIDPs). Required as part of devolution, the CIDPs detail current and planned development projects for 2013-2017.

For the most part, these plans seem to be a mere bureaucratic exercise meant to fulfill a legal requirement.

Yet the CIDPs could become a meaningful roadmap to rapid economic development, capitalising on trends in regional and international trade, and the plentiful labour force. Consider the "Asian Tigers": their rise was launched to a large degree by foreign direct investment in low-cost, export-oriented manufacturing.

The investment was attracted chiefly by the competitive advantages of a large, low-cost labour pool, policy-supported investment partnerships with US companies-and the know-how and funding of an engaged Diaspora.

The apparel industry enriched these economies thanks to the large volume of jobs it created in addition to huge economic gains from exports.

Apparel manufacturing does not require sophisticated technology, and its machinery is relatively easy to install. What Taiwan, South Korea, China and Malaysia achieved - surely Kenya can accomplish as well.

Let us remember that in the early 1980's, the textile industry led manufacturing in Kenya, employing some 30 per cent of factory workers. Unfortunately, the sector steadily declined from then as liberalisation introduced competition to local textile goods.

However, textile exports to the United States and Europe began to rise again following the creation of trade preferences such as, for the United States: the 2000 Africa Growth Opportunity Act and African Women's Entrepreneurship Programmme. A similar deal, the Cotonou Agreement, encourages exports to the European Union.

For less advantaged counties such as those in western Kenya, devolution presents the opportunity to jumpstart local economies.

The counties can capitalise on literacy rates close to 90 percent; a large, underemployed labour force; water and energy; and a gateway to Uganda and Central Africa as well as international trade agreements.

Other nations on the continent have already woken up: Ethiopia and Morocco are developing labour-intensive, export manufacturing for shoes as well as textiles, electronic and automotive component assembly.

Yet in our beloved Kenya, there remains a screaming absence of vision for large-scale, export-facing manufacturing. The textile exports that do exist are not counted in CIDPs; neither is the industry's potential to create jobs.

But we must beware: increasingly, household shambas are too small to provide even adequate nutrition for families.

Labour-intensive manufacturing for world markets may be the best bet for rural and urban folks alike to purchase adequate food and reach for a better life.

Manufacturing could also have a salutary effect on infrastructure required by both industry and people: transportation, telecommunication, utilities (energy, water, and sanitation).

Conversely, without industry in the counties, economic development will likely be heavily dependent on foreign aid, lethargic or stagnant.

The crying need for industrialisation in the counties provides tremendous opportunities for the private sector, including foreign corporations wishing to gain a foothold in the dynamic East Africa region by way of Kenya.

As doctrine has it, Kenya is the heart of East Africa's economic output.

To help attract investment, county governments should press development agencies for capacity building that directly supports industrialisation, such as technical training.

But here is the real "secret weapon": the abundance of expertise and financing within the large East African Diaspora.

Outside this country resides a multitude of Kenyan economists, engineers, public financial planners, entrepreneurs, scientists and natural resource experts.

Many send remittances, but Diaspora groups could also be mobilized for investment, knowledge transfer, and marketing. Diaspora networks are poised to develop effective partnerships, finance projects, foster better governance, and boost investor confidence.

China and India famously rely on Diaspora connections. It can work for Kenya too.

Let the counties call on Diasporans to help plan and implement economic development, including helping establish industry-friendly policies to attract those badly needed jobs.

The East Africa Diaspora Business Council, based in Washington, is at this moment creating a database of highly placed Diasporans from East Africa, to facilitate access to diaspora expertise.

During the week of the White House - African Heads of State Summit in Washington, we are hosting high-level trade and investment forums to evaluate what it will take for East Africa to compete against Asia in attracting labour-intensive industries.

In addition, we will be matching up Government agencies in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda with US-based investors and companies.

Manufacturing has led many countries out of the unemployment and poverty trap.

With our hard-working populace, both here and abroad, if we don't act, who will?

If not now, when?