The East African Community’s regional economic integration efforts are starting to pay off – here’s why to take note

Good news about Africa always seems to travel slowly. The East African Community has successfully been pushing for regional economic integration in East Africa, but not everyone has gotten wind of it. ISS researchers Peter van Bergeijk and Binyam Demena in their recently published book called ‘Trade and Investment in East Africa’ show how the EAC’s many successes and failures can provide several opportunities – and lessons – for the Netherlands and other countries seeking to further strengthen regional economic integration.

Uhuru Monument by Arthur Buliva

For the past few years, the seven member states of the East African Community (EAC) – the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania – have been working hard on furthering regional economic integration. The group of countries recognize the importance of foreign trade and investment (FTI) for their economic development and have started to reap the benefits: Kenya and Tanzania have already been reclassified as Middle Income Countries (MICs) by the World Bank.

Yet not much is known about these efforts in the Netherlands. Our recently published book, Trade and Investment in East Africa, is an attempt to showcase the EAC’s efforts by analysing these developments, identifying possible bottlenecks, and thereby also outlining perspectives that are important for the Dutch trade and development policy. We summarise some of book’s the key takeaways below to show why countries seeking to improve their regional economic integration should take note of the book.

 

Increased trade bring benefits, but it’s no free lunch

Economically, the EAC is a remarkable success. Africa is a patchwork of overlapping regional organizations that are all working towards economic integration, which is somewhat inevitable (just as the Netherlands is a member both of the EU and the Benelux). This leads to inconsistency and inefficiency in trade between countries but, as one of the studies in the book shows, the EAC suffers relatively little from this.

One possible reason for its success could be its sectoral productivity. In the book chapter, the authors using microdata on firms show that sectoral productivity patterns differ between EAC members: the countries differ in their strengths and weaknesses (what economists call their comparative advantage). Because of the different comparative advantages, it pays to specialize in what you are good at, also to increase intra-regional trade. Uganda can specialize in food where it has a comparative advantage and in the same vein we find different candidates for different countries: Kenya can specialize in furniture, Rwanda in non-metallic manufacturing, and Tanzania in printing and publishing.

That fertile base for specialization and increased trade is good news because the export premium (the higher productivity of internationally operating firms) is substantial for EAC member states and greater than the average for sub-Saharan countries. Higher productivity can be translated into higher per capita income, which is considered necessary for economic growth. Incidentally, this is not a free lunch and requires related policies (training, income support), because amongst the high-productivity winners there are also clear losers in low-productivity sectors.

 

More investment, less bureaucratic red tape needed

Beyond dealing with those sectors that are lagging, the area faces several policy challenges. The book contains some five case studies[1] that reveal some of the main challenges, which include a lack of institutional support and private sector investments. Many sectors, such as rice farming, seaweed fishing and leather production, lack investments by firms that can help these countries position themselves higher up in international value chains. State institutions on the other hand are important both for ensuring the quality of export products and for funding research and development into product-specific improvements.

Another challenge relates to a lack of investment by firms in primary sectors. For example, while Tanzania is one of the largest regional exporters of live cattle, its lack of formal slaughterhouses and leather processing facilities prevents it from expanding its leather production sector. As a result, it needs to import shoes and other simple leather products, and the upscaling of the sector is hardly possible.

When it comes to trade with the EAC region, the main bottlenecks are related to difficulties getting import and export products across borders without delay. One study contained in the book reveals bottlenecks that impede trade both within and outside of the EAC. The challenges include inadequate (air)port management and excessive bureaucratic red tape, which are compounded by the lack of a one-stop-shop approach; in principle, these are factors that could be resolved without having to make major financial investments but require a change in practices and training to implement newly developed systems.

 

Offering aid in addition to trade

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation can learn several things from the EAC in doing trade and investment better. One important finding that can be considered in the Netherlands is that trade cannot work without a certain amount of aid. An empirical study by Sylvanus Afesorgbor of European trade with the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries with which Europe has a special development aid relationship shows that trade promotion appears to lead to economic development only if it is complemented by development aid. One reason is that additional policies are necessary to help individuals that work in sectors with low productivity that lose due to international specialization.

However, the similarities have been somewhat overlooked. From this perspective alone, it is unfortunate that the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation’s new strategic policy paper, ‘Doen waar Nederland goed is in’ (‘Do what the Netherlands does best’), does not consider the EAC as an economic community of nations. While some individual EAC countries are mentioned, the emphasis is on the Netherlands’ long-standing foreign policy strategy focused on the Horn of Africa.

This leaves the opportunities that lie in the EAC out of the policy picture. For example, the Netherlands can play an important role in helping the EAC address the logistical challenges hampering trade, in particular with regard to (air)port management. It also has much to offer African policy makers through its own regional economic integration experiences, from Benelux to the EU. Moreover, several large Dutch companies also have a foothold in Tanzania, which illustrates that this is already recognized as an interesting market.

Our book brings together economists from the Global South that provide a relevant multidimensional analysis of how sensible policies can be designed that move trade and development in the same direction.

 


[1] The case studies are a comparative analysis of the leather industry by Fauzul Muna, a survey of common bean smallholder farmers in Arusha by Eliaza Mkuna, an econometric analysis of Tanzanian horticultural export by William Georde, a survey of the seaweed sector in Zanzibar by Wahida Makame, and a structured review of cross-border cooperatives in the EAC by Gerard Dushimimana.

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About the authors:

Peter van Bergeijk is Professor of International Economic Relations and Macroeconomics at the Hague-based Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University (ISS); one of the leading educational and research institutes in the field of development cooperation in Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

Binyam Afewerk Demena is an empirical economist with expertise across economic disciplines focusing on the area of development, environment, and health. He is an Assistant professor the Hague-based Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University (ISS).

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