President Uhuru Kenyatta has turned a blind eye to the political problems facing US and UK leaders in their backyards as he prepares to meet them next week in part to cement trade and diplomatic ties between Kenya and the two nations.
Diplomats told the Nation that the President in his visit to Washington tomorrow will be seeking better access to markets and support for smallholder producers in Kenya as part of the country’s ambition to improve its manufacturing.
On Monday, President Kenyatta is scheduled to meet US President Donald Trump in the White House, the first ever bilateral meeting in the US between the two. The President will later host UK Premier Theresa May in Nairobi on Thursday. Both meetings have prioritised trade, investments and regional security co-operation.
President Trump is facing a political storm in the US over a range of issues, from separating migrant children from their parents, investigations into the conduct of the election which he won, his relationship with Russia and frosty ties with the media. Ms May is also embattled after a string of top level resignations from her government as she negotiates a deal for the UK to exit from the European Union.
In fact, former British Premier David Cameron cancelled his intended trip in Nairobi in 2016 to deal with the referendum. He lost, and quit the office.
A statement on the White House website said the meeting between presidents Kenyatta and Trump "will reaffirm the long-standing relationship between the United States and Kenya as a cornerstone of peace and stability in Africa and the broader Indo-Pacific region.”
President Kenyatta is seeing the meetings as a chance to strengthen relations and business ties between Kenya and the two nations. Foreign Affairs CS Monica Juma told reporters that the talks with the US, the UK and later Chinese leaders make a part of the “Big Three” which she said showed Kenya’s strong standing in the community of nations.
On the US trip, diplomats told the Nation that Kenya is focusing on improving trade through the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), a policy set up more than a decade ago to facilitate access to US markets by African producers. Other issues targeted include security co-operation on terrorism, support against poaching, mapping of tourism sources to improve arrival numbers and opening up investments to US companies.
But trade is at the heart of the agenda with Kenya using the talks to market the direct Kenya Airways flights due to start in October. Dr Juma, who is already in the US, on Thursday addressed a gathering of the American Society of Travel Agents where she made a case for the importance of “people-to-people exchanges”, loosely translated to mean cultural tourism, adventure or business.
Under AGOA, in 2017, Kenya sold goods worth Sh45 billion to the US, mainly apparels, and bought goods worth Sh57 billion from America. That means the US was the third largest destination for Kenya’s exports and the seventh largest source of its imports, according to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. The trade favours the US.
On this trip, diplomats say, Kenya will pitch for further opening up of the US market to address the deficit, and bank on the co-operation of African nations under the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) as a policy on engaging in trade with the US, mainly because the US is likely to engage with African governments on similar trade terms once AGOA expires in 2025. International trade experts have said that Kenya should ask for ways of localising US technology to improve quality of manufacturing.
“Discussions on how Kenya can take advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to drive the ‘Big Four’ agenda on expanding the manufacturing sector, through increased exports, will assist in creating jobs for the youths,” said Mr Benard Ayieko, an economist and commentator on trade and investment in Nairobi.
Politically, the visit may indicate that President Kenyatta is making new friends without dropping old ones. But at a time of criticism on mounting debt — currently standing at more than Sh5 trillion — experts have cautioned that he should now go for opportunities that will boost local ventures as a way to reduce debt.
With the UK though, Kenya enjoys a better deal ahead of President Kenyatta’s fourth meeting with Ms May. At least 100 British companies have invested in Kenya and about 170,000 British tourists visited the country last year. Kenya exported goods worth Sh38.6 billion last year, mainly fresh flowers, tea and beans and fresh vegetables, according to the Trade Ministry. It imported goods worth Sh30 billion during this time.
But with Britain exiting the European Union, Kenyan officials argue it also presents fresh opportunities for the two countries to explore new economic ventures and a stronger deal on trade that will address Brexit uncertainties.