Over a dozen Caribbean Islands nations led by Barbados are now banking on expected trade and investment pacts with Kenya and other East African Community (EAC) countries to grow trade between the two regions.
The pacts have the potential to generate trade volumes estimated at over Sh120 billion.
The Caribbean nations, especially Jamaica are best known for their white sandy beaches and reggae music.
A Kenyan delegation led by outgoing Industrialisation Cabinet Secretary Betty Maina recently attended the first-ever Africa-Caribbean Trade Investment Forum in Barbados where areas of cooperation were discussed.
The forum, backed by the government of Barbados and the Pan-African trade bank, the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank), was part of ongoing efforts to boost trade between Africa and the island nations.
Low-hanging opportunities for Kenyan firms, the Kenyan delegation heard, are in the traditional stronghold of tourism but also upcoming sectors such as manufacturing, financial services and maritime.
“This is a chance for us to work together and build stronger bonds to the benefit of our regions, nations and people,” said Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley.
The visit comes just months after outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta led another high-level delegation to Barbados in October last where the two countries signed three key bilateral agreements for cooperation in aviation, environmental conservation, trade and investment.
President Kenyatta disclosed at the time that Kenya and Barbados were exploring ways of establishing direct air and sea links to enable the free movement of people, goods and services between the two countries.
“This is one area where we are hoping to find great success that will make it easy for the businessmen and women, those seeking to re-engage with the African continent, to be able to do so without having to wait for visas from third parties,” he said.
Caribbean nations and territories include Barbados, Jamaica, Anguilla, Grenada, St Barts, St Kitts and Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos as well as Suriname, Belize, Guyana and the Cayman Islands.
They are located in the region of the Americas that consists of the Caribbean Sea, its islands and the surrounding coasts.
Experts urged Kenya and other EAC countries to take the advantage of the overtures by the Caribbean Islands.
“In goods trade alone, we found that Africa could boost its exports to the Caribbean by more than 50 per cent in less than five years, potentially exporting $325 million (Sh39 billion) every year,” said International Trade Centre Executive Director Pamela Coke-Hamilton.
The boss of the United Nations and World Trade Organisation-backed agency further noted that the Caribbean could, in turn, increase its annual goods exports to Africa by almost one-third to reach $264million (Sh31.6 billion).
“This potential cannot be unlocked without a serious, targeted push on both sides of the Atlantic,” she said in a recent commentary.
President Kenyatta is among African leaders who have made a spirited push to boost trade with the region, citing a shared colonial-era history.
Over the last three years, President Kenyatta has toured the region three times, including Jamaica and Barbados.
But in June this year, he emphasised that several hurdles must be overcome to facilitate trade between the two regions, including the need to “enhance transport connectivity between Kenya and Barbados to boost trade and economic ties between the two countries.”
Visitors to Barbados from Africa, for instance, have to travel via British and United States hubs, which takes nearly a day as opposed to flying directly to the region, which would take under six hours since there are no direct flights.
According to Afreximbank President Dr Benedict Oramah, African countries like Kenya could tap huge economic opportunities in tourism and manufacturing.
“It is a remarkable entrepreneurial drive that made Europeans take enormous risks to travel thousands of miles in boats to find new lands and produce on them,” said Dr Oramah.
“We need a similar entrepreneurial zeal, deployed more positively, for us to profitably work the same lands and build trans-Atlantic bridges for our common good as Africans.”
More than 10 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic in the transatlantic slave trade by European nations between the 15th and 19th centuries.
Those who survived the often brutal voyage ended up toiling on sugarcane and cotton plantations.
Dr Oramah cites opportunities in tourism and primary manufacturing as well as the blue economy.
“It is estimated that thousands of Africans visit the Caribbean on vacation annually. Yet, the arrangements for hotel accommodation, transportation and tourism services are made indirectly through agencies neither domiciled in Africa nor the Caribbean,” he said.
Dr Oramah further noted that while the Caribbean is awash with fish, Africa imports $4.5 billion (Sh540 billion) of fish and crustaceans from the global market, with the Caribbean accounting for less than one per cent.
“These data provide glimpses of what is possible if we dare,” he said.
His view is also shared by the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretary General Wamkele Mene.
To pursue such business opportunities, Kenya tapped Anthony Muchiri as its first High Commissioner of Kenya to Jamaica, Barbados, St Kitts and Nevis and Guyana as part of efforts to deepen trade within the region.
“Transport is critical because of connectivity. We always wanted to have a direct connection to the Caribbean. To go to Africa, you have to go through Europe or the US,” said Mr Muchiri, underlining the connectivity challenges that Kenyan businesses face to trade in the region.
Kenya Airways (KQ) is one of the regional airlines alongside Ethiopian Airlines gunning for direct flights to the region.
Barbados, for instance, has signed air services agreements for cargo and passengers with KQ.
“We are trying as much as possible to ensure that our premier airline, Kenya Airways, sees that a commercial flight is viable to the Caribbean region. Trade follows people. Once people start coming to the Caribbean, they will start trading with each other,” said Mr Muchiri.
Barbados Prime Minister Mottley cited Africa’s practical support in combating the Covid 19 pandemic as an example of an area of collaboration.
“President Uhuru Kenyatta called me and facilitated that we get the vaccines,” she said.
The latest calls and efforts for deeper Africa and Caribbean integration mirror those made by late former Jamaica’s Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey who over 100 years ago founded a shipping venture to link Africa with its diaspora in the Caribbean and boost trade.
“These actions can take our two regions closer to Marcus Garvey’s pioneering vision,” said Ms Coke-Hamilton of the International Trade Center.