Australia places trade at the centre of ties with Kenya

John Feakes, Australia’s High Commissioner to Kenya. PHOTO | BD GRAPHIX
John Feakes, Australia’s High Commissioner to Kenya. PHOTO | BD GRAPHIX 

Kenya and Australia are this year celebrating 50 years of bilateral relations. A number of Australian firms have either invested or expressed interest in key sectors of the Kenyan economy, including mining, education, healthcare and agribusiness.

In October 2012, the Australian International Food Security Centre (AIFSC) opened an office in Nairobi to finance applied research for faster agricultural technology adoption across 10 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa.

The two countries have also strengthened ties on security, counter-terrorism and piracy, mining exploration and education.

The Business Daily’s Allan Odhiambo spoke with John Feakes, Australia’s High Commissioner to Kenya, on the state of Kenya-Australia relations and what lies ahead for the two countries.

What is your assessment of Kenya’s socio-economic environment so far?

I am very positive about Kenya’s progression because all the factors requisite for development are gradually being addressed. The country’s growth would have been quicker but the promise remains strong.

Kenya’s human capital is particularly attractive, especially given the drive its young entrepreneurs have. The geographical placement also places the country in an advantageous position for growth because it’s the gateway to the region.

The investment being made in infrastructure development is impressive and will pay dividend in future.

What is the cornerstone of Australia’s ties with Kenya?

The two nations are relatively young members of the Commonwealth and share a lot in terms of progression lessons. The melting point in our relations is the dynamism we both have to grow the private sector.

We have a strong bond in the development of key sectors, including education, mining, infrastructure and food security. Numerous programmes and projects have been initiated to address these key drivers of the economy.

We also have an active collaboration in counter-terrorism and piracy.

Could you expound on the education aspect because more Kenyan students are taking up courses in Australia, what is driving this?

Although the US and the UK remain the preferred destinations for Kenyan students, Australia is getting its fair share of attention because we have created an enabling environment for foreign students to access quality education in our universities.

Our student visa arrangement is very attractive because it allows graduates to stay on for some time and work, a favour they would not enjoy in many other countries.

Today we have more than 1,500 Kenyan students studying in Australia and the number is expected to continue rising.

The cost of education and living in Australia is also more favourable compared to many developed economies. Besides, the Australian dollar has weakened relatively against the US dollar making it a cheaper destination for students.

This, coupled with access to jobs upon graduation, has helped grow Australia’s profile among students. Australia also remains very safe and peaceful, which is key for studies. 

An Australian company, Base Resources, has made major progress in the Kenyan mining sector. Has this created interest among other firms back home?

The impressive performance by Base Resources offers an opportunity for Kenya to deepen its mining ties with Australia.

The Australian mining industry is nearly 100 years old and the lessons learned during this long journey offers Kenya priceless opportunities to improve its own sector. We are keen to see more Australian companies investing in the Kenyan mining sector.

The upcoming 2015 Africa Down Under conference in Perth provides a fertile ground to explore investment opportunities in Kenya and the rest of Africa. We have a strong exchange programme on mining between the two nations.

A number of top Kenyan officials have been facilitated to make learning visits to Australia’s advanced mining industry.

Several Kenyan students are pursuing mining-related courses in Australia and it is our hope that the knowledge transfer will be beneficial to Kenya.

Do you see the recently approved Mining Bill 2014 spurring bigger interest in Kenya?

It is a potential game-changer because it creates more certainty among investors. It establishes a definite set of rules and regulations to guide long term planning and investment.

The old rules and regulations from the colonial times left many gaps that didn’t augur well with investors, but this will definitely change with the new law. Investors thrive on predictable environs.

Kenya faces a lot threats from terrorism, piracy and drug trafficking. Is your country helping curb these?

In the past few years the Australian navy has intercepted large drug hauls in the Indian Ocean with the aid of Kenyan and Tanzania authorities.

Australia has also worked with a coalition of international navies to fight piracy off the Somalia coastline and this has stabilised the flow of cargo to the region.

We are hoping to build on these partnerships because the threats of terrorism are real and we cannot afford to relax.

We also have a military training partnership with Kenya. For example, in November every year we run a military training programme for about 30 to 40 students in Nairobi.

A number of Kenyan military officers regularly train in Australia as part of a partnership that seeks to boost safety and security.

What specific food security programmes does Australia target to implement in Kenya?

The Australian International Food Security Centre (AIFSC) that opened an office in Nairobi in 2012 is currently developing a solution to the Aflatoxin fungi that destroys maize in Kenya every year.

We are also working to harness the benefits of the highly nutritious Amaranth plant and contain the spread of Africa Swine Fever disease that has affected pig production in Kenya.

Further, Australia is working on a programme in Naivasha that targets to improve the production of Rose flowers. We are also keen on having a chat with the Water and Irrigation ministry to identify areas in which we can partner to improve water conservation and management.

Australia is largely arid and semi-arid and Kenya can benefit from the lessons and experiences we have had in water management and conservation.

Trade between Kenya and Australia remains low, why is this so?

Trade between these two countries has mainly been affected by lack of information on opportunities.

Investors in the western part of Australia overlooking Africa are fairly knowledgeable of opportunities in Kenya and East Africa but those in the eastern side and big cities such as Sidney have little information.

More partnerships, exchanges and marketing can help correct this situation because the opportunities on both sides are immense.