This year as the United Kingdom struggles to leave the economic bloc that is the EU, a group of countries previously considered to be among the poorest in the world are coming together into an East African Community (EAC). This new Economic Community are also issuing a new passport which will see visa restrictions lifted and free travel in the region for around 120 million people. Oh, and the colour of this passport will be blue. Some, like the one pictured above have already been issued.
The realisation of a large regional economic bloc encompassing Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda with a combined population of 120 million people, land area of 1.85 million sq kilometres and a combined gross domestic product of $ 41 billion, bears great strategic and geopolitical significance and prospects of a renewed and reinvigorated East African Community.
Its been in the planning stages from November 1999 when an inter-governmental treaty was signed.
East Africa’s economic growth is among the fastest in the world and its countries are becoming increasingly integrated and interdependent.
The EAC aims at widening and deepening co-operation among the partner states and other regional economic communities in, among others, political, economic and social fields for their mutual benefit.
Perceptions of East Africa among white Europeans are largely dictated by images of famine, drought and economic hardship. We regularly see weeping BBC celebrities outside Kibera,the largest slum in East Africa every year for Children in Need.Yet what the BBC do not tell us is the massive amount of self employment and resilience of local people.They do not want paternalistic handouts but merely a helping hand to be more self sufficient.
Despite past political corruption, countries in the region recognise that there is strength in unity and pulling together. The images we have of shanty towns has to sit beside images of vibrant cities and countries that are growing fast economically. Political engagement is at a high level and despite recent electoral problems voter turn out is high and there is an appetite for positive development to curb unemployment especially among young people.
In Kenya recent railway developments include fast and efficient rail travel from Nairobi to the coastal region of Mombassa.Supported by China this massive infrastructure project is set to revitalise the economy and put people to work in tourism and other important sectors.
In terms of telecommunications East Africa is already ahead of us. Kenya has had mobile phone banking since 2007 and it is used by 17 million Kenyans to do anything from pay for taxi’s , shopping, meals , anything. M-Pesa is a system launched by a telecoms company Safaricom
You don’t need an expensive smart phone to use M-pesa.The service does not require users to have bank accounts, an important aspect in a country like Kenya, where many people do not have bank accounts. With M-PESA, the user can buy digital funds at any M-PESA agent and send that electronic cash to any other mobile phone user in Kenya, who can then redeem it for conventional cash at any agent. An M-PESA-enabled mobile phone can also function as an electronic wallet and can hold up to 100,000 Kenyan Shillings (approx. US$1,000). Safaricom has announced that it intends to roll out M-PESA to other countries. M-PESA has enabled many start up companies to develop as it reduces their overhead costs and can help with paying wages and bills.
The use of mobile telecoms and internet in East Africa is on the increase and it is driving economic growth. Combined with political collaboration to create economic growth the future for the region is looking positive.Free travel for citizens of countries like Rwanda, and Burundi will benefit from the infrastructure improvements in neighbouring larger countries of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.
Coming back to the UK where we are on the cusp of leaving a large scale economic bloc and also changing our passports the contrast could not be more stark. Their future looks brighter while ours looks very uncertain. When we also hear about talk of new trade deals and turning to our friends in the Commonwealth I am afraid the Chinese have already beaten the UK to it. As East Africa looks forward to free movement and increased prosperity for its citizens car and lorry drivers in the UK this week learned that if no deals are properly concluded UK driving licences will be invalid for use on continental Europe.
A giraffe having a ‘safari’ of its own through Nairobi suburbs .