Kenya must guard her lead role in region

American designer Virgil Abloh once said: “The whole point of collaboration is that you give and take from each other, and that’s how you create things that are totally new.” Now, he was not thinking about the relationship between Kenya and her neighbours. But his saying accurately describes some of the recent bilateral agreements made by Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan, regarding port space on Kenyan soil.

During his recent state visit, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir accepted the offer of a 10-acre piece of land in Naivasha to build a dry port to ease the movement of goods and boost trade between the two countries. The dry port will be built at the Inland Container Depot at the Naivasha Special Economic Zones, and will serve as a logistics hub for the Sh2.5 trillion Lamu Port South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor Project.

Kenya and South Sudan have historically strong relations, which started before the latter’s independence in 2011. Investing in the stability of our neighbours is a long term strategic approach, one being continued by the government in a show of wisdom and ambition.

Specifically with regards to South Sudan, Kenya already benefits from billions of shillings of exports, as well as access to cheap wood imports, the oil pipeline, and shared regional infrastructure investments. These all bring multiplying layers of economic and political benefits, and can be traced back to the foundations laid nearly 20 years ago, and built upon ever since.

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A joint commission for cooperation for trade and investment is the natural expression of a historic partnership which has helped raise South Sudanese people into independence in the first place. 

All of these successful investments are dependent on the continuing stability of South Sudan. If, heaven forbid, the country were to slide into total anarchy, then instead of a net profit, we would end up with a net deficit to show for our years of effort. Imagine the same situation with Somalia, and the potential that has been lost for so many countries near and far.

Kenya is already linked to South Sudan by road. Soon we will add port to the list, and we expect to see this new endeavour blossoming in the form of offshoot businesses and services. Keeping the economy dynamic requires a multilateral approach - no successful country has remained true to one strategy and implementation.

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The trade expo in November is another feather in our bow. With such close connections, it is only natural that many complex logistical and financial pathways will lead through our border. The government has set up our small and medium businesses for a total victory in South Sudan, as they have done with Uganda already.

If the government had not acted in a timely manner, those billions of shillings of exports would have been up for grabs to other African or even Asian exporters. Kenya’s successful growth in Asia and Europe needs to be reinforced in Africa, and while Germany, for example, would surely not be interested in Kenyan port space, we have been smart to press home the advantage with other economies who are.

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Ultimately, there is little point in all this infrastructure investment without a way for businesses to fully take advantage of it. If regional infrastructure with Kenya at the heart is the correct position for this government to pursue, and I believe that is obvious, then our interests in South Sudan should of course be encouraged to grow beyond air transport and into every area of the local economy.

With South Sudanese security and trade increasingly important to Kenya’s interests, it is not unreasonable to see this as an immediate fulfillment of American Ambassador Kyle McCarter’s call for Kenya to become “not just a beneficiary but a benefactor” of international development aid.

Let us not forget, it was Ambassador McCarter’s country which rebuilt the world in their image after World War II using international development aid. If it can work for a superpower all over the world, it can work for Kenya in our own backyard, as Americans would say.

- The writer is the KenInvest Board Chairman

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KenyaNaivasha Special Economic ZonesDry Port