Tough visa restrictions hamper trade in Africa

Motorists wait to be cleared on the Kenya-Uganda border at Malaba. The East African Community is Kenya’s biggest market in Africa. Photo/JARED NYATAYA

What you need to know:

  • Stringent rules mean missed opportunities for doing business, say experts.

Kenya faces an uphill task in its renewed campaign to grow trade with other African countries as stringent visa requirements restrict movement of traders.

While the region is already Kenya’s single largest export destination, accounting for 48.4 per cent of Sh517.9 billion goods exported last year, experts say the high fees and lengthy manual process for visas have hampered trade and hindered job-creation on the continent.

“Africa is one of the regions in the world with the highest visa requirements,” Prof Mthuli Ncube, chief economist and vice-president of the African Development Bank, told a panel organised jointly by the bank and World Economic Forum in Morocco last week.

“Visa restrictions imply missed economic opportunities for intra-regional trade and for the local service economy such as tourism, cross-country medical services or education,” he added.

Under President Uhuru Kenyatta’s new administration, Kenya—which charges $50 (Sh4, 250) for single entry visa and $100 (Sh8, 500) for multiple entries —hopes to deepen its trade and investment ties with its African neighbours.

Kenyans eying business in South Sudan and Somalia have been held back by visa and travel restrictions. It takes two days (48 hours) and lots of paper work, including a copy of yellow fever card to obtain a single-entry visa to South Sudan.

The country charges Sh4,250 single visa fees for citizens of countries with which it shares borders such as Kenya and Sh8, 500 for the rest of African countries. Similarly, Somalia charges foreigners Sh4,250, including Kenyans seeking visas.

“You end up taking double the time to travel between Garissa and Somalia because of the time lost in the slow process of obtaining visas,” James Mureu, from the Mombasa branch chapter of the Kenya National Chambers of Commerce and Industry told a Somali Investment forum in Nairobi last week.

The East African Community (EAC) is Kenya’s biggest market in Africa where it has entered into regional integration agreement with Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi to scrap visa requirements for their citizens.

The EAC, which is now a common market accounted for 53.9 per cent of the Sh250.6 billion that Kenya exported to African countries last year, translating to an internal trade level of just over 15 per cent.

“The movement of talent and people is at the core of regional integration,” Prof Ncube said in opening remarks last week, adding that the informal sector which accounts for 25 per cent of all trade in Africa would boom in the absence of visa restrictions.

In EAC, Rwanda not only leads in opening its borders to regional partners but also investors from other parts of the world.

Mr Leonard Rugwabiza, the director in charge of general planning at Rwanda’s finance and economic Planning ministry attributed his country’s success to the shift to biometric border management since January 1, 2013.

This and introduction of e-visas mean Rwanda which has a limited number of embassies abroad can let let in visitors and critical services such as engineering cheaply from all over the world.

“Since we opened our borders, tourism from African countries has increased by 24 per cent while trade shifted from being oriented to Europe and North America in favour of neighbouring countries,” said Mr Rugwabiza.

Rwanda’s trade with neighbouring countries increased by 50 per cent in 2012 with the bilateral trade with the Democratic Republic of Congo alone rising by 73 per cent over the same period, Mr Rugwabiza said.

“Visas are a major barrier, and pose restrictions to doing business in Africa,” said Mr Abdul Awl, Board Member of Dabashill Group.

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