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ELECTION 2022

Besides China, Kenya has other big market options in the East

OPINION
By XN Iraki | May 15th 2022 | 5 min read
 President Uhuru Kenyatta and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi address a media briefing after holding bilateral talks at State House, Nairobi. 201607. [File, Standard]

For the last forty years, China has been getting all the airtime in East Asia. Ever since opening up to the rest of the world in 1978, the country has been a swirling vortex sucking in foreign investors.

But unlike a black hole where nothing escapes, China's exports move all over the world. Did you see the recently released first-ever picture of a black hole? 

China quickly relaxed its image as a communist state and is now better known for unprecedented economic growth, as the workshop of the world and more recently as the epicentre of the deadly Covid-19.

The country is poised to become the key economic countervailing force to the US. However, in terms of military and culture, China is yet to catch up. Who are the Chinese pop stars or actors to rival the western ones? How many Kenyans have Chinese names like Xi or Wang? 

Intoxicated by China, we have forgotten that the East is much more than China. Beyond its popular locations such as the forbidden city, Beijing and Shanghai lie other East Asia countries. Three stand out; the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Let’s not forget India, which rivals China in population and is the world's pharmacy. It’s an open question how China overtook India economically. Yet, India is a democracy and equally an ancient civilisation. Kenyans hear more of China than India. This is despite India's proximity and the huge presence of its community in Kenya since the building of the Uganda Railway popularly known as the Lunatic Express over 120 years ago. 

We can’t forget Japan which is best known for electronics and car manufacturing. Japan's cultural influence like China’s is muted. It’s the world’s third-biggest economy after being recently overtaken by China. Curiously, the top two economies have had colonial encounters. The USA was colonised by Britain, China by Japan, the UK and other western powers. Remember the opium wars? 

Let’s focus on other contenders for the limelight in East Asia beyond the traditional three.

The Philippines has a population of 110 million which is double that of Kenya. It’s known as the home of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe-loving wife. Why does it matter to Kenya? It’s a market! It was once home to a big American naval base at Subic Bay. It has a Catholic majority and a Muslim minority. The Spanish introduced Christianity there in the 1500s. The country is also known for exporting workers in the hospitality industry. And I hear it also exports good wives! 

While the Philippines' population is dwarfed by China or India, it is still a market. Why do we know so little of this country? 

It’s now in the news following the return of the Marcos dynasty after 30 years in the political cold. His son, Ferdinand Marcos Junior, was recently elected president. Maybe Kanu can learn from that by rebranding and feeding us with nostalgia.   

It’s amazing how quickly we forget political excesses. It’s not hard to explain. If you are now 30 years old, it’s hard to believe that I had to get a Kanu membership card to get my national ID or that being expelled from Kanu meant political death. 

Think of Russia after only 30 years; the excesses of communism are now forgotten and they have a strong man as the leader. It’s time to study political psychology. Why is Russia attacking Ukraine? Is it a path to greatness or what exactly?

By 2050, the Philippines population is projected to hit 145 million – a big market. What shall we be selling there? Why so little trade with this archipelago, yet they talk English and it’s a democracy? We exported goods worth only $6.28 million (Sh722 million) in 2021, according to data from the UN COMTRADE.

The second country is Indonesia – which has the world’s largest Muslim population – and a population of 277 million. Known for her volcanoes and Komodo Dragon, its population is projected to reach 300 million by 2050. This is another market. Kenya sold only $8.32 million (Sh956.8 million) worth of goods there. Surprisingly, Kenya only opened an embassy in Indonesia this year. 

Add Vietnam which has a population of 97 million and is projected to reach 110 million by 2050. The country, infamous for the 20-year Vietnam War which killed 58,000 Americans, is one of the new kids on the block. It’s another market. And guess her biggest export market? The US. Kenya exported $20.97 million (Sh2.4 billion) worth of goods to Vietnam in 2021, UN COMTRADE data shows.

Compare all this with exports to the UK which was $450.5 million (Sh51.8 billion) in the same year.

The three countries are far behind China and India in population, but looking at their projections in the next 30 years, they are a market we should spare a thought for.

After all, as we think of Vision 2030, the Big Four or even the African Union’s Agenda 2063, the market should always be at the back of our minds. 

Trade is about the exchange of goods. What more can we sell to Vietnam, the Philippines or Indonesia? We should, however, not forget our traditional markets. We could even sell these countries what they grow, with value addition and better branding. Don’t we import processed coffee? 

Do the three countries appear in our geography or history syllabus? We should not learn about the three countries just to satisfy our curiosity. They can make a difference to our economy as they are a market and a bigger one in the future.

There is a lot of talk about the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which is a great idea. But it will take time to actualise that idea.  Let’s state the fact – even after this free trade is fully functional, the world will remain the best market. We should diversify to these emerging markets, they are low lying fruits. 

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