We will gain immensely from our blue economy

The cover page of a little known 2017 government report has a boy lifting the canvass off the sea to reveal a stash of hidden cash.

It is a fitting metaphor for Kenya’s unexploited treasure buried in the sea.

The little boy represents Kenya, which has recently started to implement a strategy of exploiting the economic opportunities presented by the sea.

Titled, ‘Rediscovering the road to prosperity’, the report was prepared by the nine-member Blue Economy Committee, established in 2016 (converted into a standing implementation committee last year) by President Uhuru Kenyatta under the Chairmanship of the Chief of General Staff, General Samson Mwathathe.

Its mandate was to analyse the range of water-based economic activities and point out opportunities for Kenya to exploit.

Lost dream

The work of this committee has enabled the country to “begin the journey to recovering a lost dream,” as the President put it during the launch of the Blue Economy Revitalisation Programme at Liwatoni, Mombasa, in November last year.

“Recovery” and “revitalisation” are the new buzzwords on the lips of government economists when talking about the blue economy, itself a new term covering fisheries and aquaculture, maritime transport and logistics services, extractive industries and culture, tourism, leisure and lifestyle.

Indeed, Kenya has embarked on a process of recovering past glory and building a strong maritime economy–a move that is meeting a lot of resistance from vested local and international business interests that have been exclusively benefiting from the country’s erstwhile slumber without obvious benefits to Kenya. This group would prefer the status quo to remain. 

In the 1990s, for instance, over 10,000 Kenyans worked as seafarers. A further 3,000 were employed at a fish processing facility in Liwatoni. All these jobs disappeared after Kenya failed to keep up with global training standards and a competitive shipping industry.

It is this unfortunate situation that is being corrected through several strategic approaches that include the revitalisation of the Liwatoni Fisheries Complex and Seaweed Farming in Kibuyuni, Kwale Count; the mapping and repossession of privatised fish landing sites; establishment of Kenya Coast Guard and the Bandari Maritime Academy and the revival of the Kenya National Shipping Line (KNSL).

These measures are all aimed at creating jobs to shore up the livelihoods of communities at the coast, around Lakes Victoria and Turkana as well as saving Kenya foreign exchange and opening up new avenue streams for the national economy.

For instance, each year, Kenya pays out Sh304.7 billion to foreign shipping lines. A further Sh37 billion is spent on what are known as “destination charges” –mainly cleaning, documentation, accessorial fees and container deposits.

And that is not all. Kenyan maritime transport services are worth Sh73 billion, fisheries Sh48.8 billion and tourism, Sh57 billion.

This is considerable wealth that has largely remained unregulated, denying Kenyans jobs and stunting economic growth. For instance, it is estimated that fishing ports in Shimoni, Mombasa, Kilifi and Lamu can create 12,000 jobs and add Sh20 billion to the GDP. 

In total, the revival of Kenya’s blue economy is expected to generate 144,190 jobs along the value chain for a total of 236,555, up from the current 92,000 jobs.

Some of these jobs and incomes will come from fishing and the diversification of tourist package to include cruise, sport fishing, game safaris, marina, dolphin and whale watching and world class malls. Additional jobs will be created in Mariculture (sea weed farming), ship-building and container repair, port infrastructure building and operation, artisanal fishing equipment making and training.

The newfangled dalliance with the blue economy is informed by the examples of South Africa, which unlocked Sh170 billion in investments over 18 months after intervening and the desire to enter Mombasa into the Leading Maritime Capitals Report, which is currently dominated by metropolises such as Singapore, Oslo, London, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

The contribution of the sector to the GDP is expected to grow from the current USD21 million to over USD300 million once this strategy is implemented.  

A key anchor of this strategy is the revival of the KNSL which has been moribund for years.

Transform Mombasa

After considering all options, including the fact that KNSL has no ships and global network of agencies, the Government together with Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), its pre-existing strategic partner since 1997, agreed to restructure and reorganise the KNSL to develop Kenya’s capacity to fully participate in the shipping industry and transform Mombasa into a regional transshipment and logistics hub in addition to providing much needed sea time (required, hand-to-get practical training) and jobs to Kenyan youth.

It is this arrangement that is being criticised as opaque by interested parties and their proxies, although the partners simply exercised pre-emptive rights as per their original partnership agreement.  

This is an important part of the President’s legacy, who, confronted with a youth bulge, is determined to diversify the economy, revitalise old and create new industries, expand the revenue base and expand job opportunities for the youth.

Mr Ngugi teaches at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Nairobi