Why new Australia government is on a charm offensive in Africa

Australian Foreign Affairs Assistant Minister Tim Watts (R) during an interview with the Standard. [Mwangi Maina, Standard]

Australian Foreign Affairs Assistant Minister Tim Watts officially opened the new Australian High Commission in Nairobi on Monday.

The visiting leader held meetings with Foreign and Diaspora affairs CS Alfred Mutua, Education CS Ezekiel Machogu and Senate Speaker Amason Kingi on ways of strengthening bilateral relations.

The Standard caught up with Watts at the tail end of his official visit to Nairobi on Tuesday.

Australia is reinvigorating ties with Africa. What does your visit mean for Kenya and Africa?

It means that Africa matters to Australia. There are certain challenges like climate change, global peace and stability and growing prosperity in international economy that we need to work with global partners. Africa is growing, it's about a quarter of the UN and by 2050 a quarter of all people on earth. It is really important to the new Australian government that we are turning up and listening to African perspectives.

Kenya and Australia have very similar personal personalities, the two countries are open. We are very quick to make friends. My visit to Nairobi started on Monday and I already feel welcomed.

At the heart of these relations is trade and investment. How is Canberra building strong partnerships to ensure the growth of trade?

Australian and Kenyan economies are a complimentary in a lot of ways. Australia has a very significant mining resource. Base Resources company which has the biggest mining operation in Kenya is Australian, so sharing that expertise and that investment in mining and resources sector has been important. Similarly, the agriculture industry is very big in Australia. Sharing agriculture practices is something that is important between the two countries.

Kenya and Australia are members of the Commonwealth. What kind of initiatives have you put in place to capitalise on the commonwealth trade?

Australia is a free trading nation and we are a country that benefits from the international trading system and we want to see trade occurring consistent with the WTO rules. We don't have commonwealth preferences in our trading system but we are always looking for partners to trade with. It has been really interesting for me on this trip to Africa to learn about progress in implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area. The whole world is watching this initiative and Australia is hoping for the success of the initiative.

Education, the third most important export of Australia and currently Kenya is the largest source of international students from Africa. What kind of educational exchange programmes are we looking at?

International education is really fundamental to Australia. To give you an indication of how quality it is, our Foreign Minister Penny Wong, her father came to Australia as an international student. During the Covid lockdown is when all international travels to Australia stopped and we didn't have any international students. It just didn't feel like Australia. Education is one of our biggest export industries and Kenya is the largest source of international students from Africa. We have master's scholarship programmes and Kenyan students can apply including other targeted short courses scholarships.

Australia was ranked number one for world's worst coal polluter and the situation is not getting better. Why is Australia polluting the world?

The new Australian government recognises that Australia hasn't done a lot from this issue in the past and the first thing the government did when it came to power was to go to Paris agreement and update our nationally determined contribution, our commitments to carbon reduction.

We also recognise the history of climate change and enough carbon contributions is uneven and that's why at the Cop summit in Egypt we supported developing world initiatives to establish the loss and damage provisions. Climate financing and harnessing international private capital in the developing world is really crucial to our ability as a globe to fight climate change and Australia supports that fundamentally.

Your country has the sixth largest coastline in the world. We share common values especially when it comes to the Indian ocean. How are the two countries partnering to harness this shared resource, the blue economy?

Australia and Kenya share a fundamental interest in the Indian Ocean, the west coast of Australia and the east coast of Kenya... if you're fit enough, you can row a boat from Kenya to Australia as CS Mutua was telling me. I know Kenya is famous for long-distance runners, long-distance rowers might be a new thing.

In Indian Ocean, Kenya and Australia are exploring on a number of things, one is the potential of blue economy and is particularly relevant to our ability to fight climate change. We are talking of mangrove restoration and tracking down what Kenyans who studied in Australia are doing in south coast of Kenya, looking at sea grasses and looking at why is that we can use natural ecosystem in the ocean to retain and store carbon.

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