Is Kenya becoming East Africa's 'cry baby'?

Issa Khamisi from Tanzania offload oranges fruits from a lorry at Karatina Market in Nyeri.[File,Standard]

When it comes to trade relations with its neighbours, Kenya appears like it is always crying foul over unfair trade practices.

The country is perennially banning the importation of products from the rest of the East Africa region, which has played a part in slowing down regional integration.

It has always had bitter-sweet relations with its East African Community (EAC) neighbours, particularly Uganda and Tanzania, the two countries that have over time emerged as Kenya’s largest trading partners.

The most recent ban was in March when the government prohibited the importation of maize from Tanzania and Uganda on claims that it had aflatoxin.

The Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA) said surveillance and tests done on maize from the two countries had shown that most of it had unacceptable levels of aflatoxin.

And maize is not the only product that Kenya has banned from the two countries. Others include cooking gas, raw sugar cane, sugar, eggs, dairy and meat products.

The maize ban angered Uganda’s parliamentarians, who doubted the veracity of claims that their maize had aflatoxin, and instead saw ill motives from the Kenyan side.

The MPs noted that Uganda had always been hospitable to Kenyan businesses and accepted Kenyan imports and wondered whether it was time to start repaying Kenya in kind.

In a statement on Parliament’s website that captures debate in the house following the March last year ban on maize imports from Uganda, Busia Municipality MP Geoffrey Macho said Kenya’s action will not only hurt trade in the region but the spirit of EAC integration

“We see this as a big joke aimed to hinder the East African Community. It is a big shame; Kenya should separate development from politics,” said Macho. He said Uganda should reciprocate and ban mangoes, Irish potatoes and rice from Kenya. Bugweri County MP Abdu Katuntu said the incessant bans by Kenya negate the spirit of the integration process.

“We are not ready to be bullied by Kenya, and we are not being done a favour by trading with Kenya,” Katuntu said. “This is not about quality, this is protectionist; it seems the Kenya government is trying to protect its farmers.”

Trade in EAC is governed by the EAC common market protocol, which stipulates that products produced in one EAC country are permitted entry into another member state without restrictions. Thus in the case of the maize from Tanzania or Uganda, it should have been permitted entry into the Kenyan market without hindrances. There are, however, instances where products can be denied entry due to health and environmental safety concerns.

Trade lobby Trademark East Africa (TMEA) said trade within EAC should be guided by the rules of the various regional trade blocs, which are aligned to those of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

“In the recent months, countries in the EAC (notably Kenya) have continued to issue trade restrictions on various food and agricultural commodities from neighbouring countries, for example, the recent import restrictions by Kenya for imports of maize from Uganda and Tanzania,” said TMEA Director for Standards and SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) Measures Dr Andrew Edewa.

Ugandan authorities claim that the country lost $455 million (Sh49 billion) worth of exports in 2019. Kennedy Manyala, an economist who specialises in the EAC, recently told the Financial Standard that while some of the measures – such as SPS – are meant to protect the health of the citizens, they are also non-tariff barriers.

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