Portal has eased access to trade information

During my lifetime, the pendulum has moved away from an era when governments ran our utility services, infrastructure, and much of our business too. Nowadays, states are smaller set-ups, and more focused on enabling citizens in driving their own success.

That shift towards enablement is a core philosophy – the idea being, for business, that a government should no longer run businesses, but be responsible for the legislation and information that enables everyone else to run businesses: mobilising millions of people, versus only hundreds of thousands.

In Kenya, the principle has driven rounds of legislative reform, but our enablement has been slow.

Last year, I set up two new companies, one in Kenya, and one in the UK. The Kenyan company took me some weeks to set up, and cost over Sh50.000. The UK company took less than an hour - I did it online – and cost less than Sh10,000.

Being in business in the UK is easier in almost every way than being in business in Kenya, and that doesn’t help any of us in Kenya, or our economic growth, or our tax base.

Yet, last month, after sitting with farmers trying to launch a seeds business, I wrote bemoaning the impossibility of discovering the cost of seed certification. And now I have found the cost.

That cost may be why our farmers were travelling from office to office to get the right quote: because it’s free. I’m still a bit surprised at this. Not many public services are free in Kenya.

Many are elsewhere. But, here, we tend to pay for regulatory processes. But, says KenTrade, on its new trade information portal, that seed certification is free.

And it’s that trade information portal I am here to write about today. Because in every process of change, there are some who lead it, some who show us what is possible, who succeed in often difficult innovation, and, sometimes even, inspire us all – or at least me, anyway.

And KenTrade has won my hat on the whole set for that portal.

The portal is a world first. It’s not some catch-up, or Kenya stepping in to do what others have already done. In fact, it is the M-Pesa of our public landscape.

It was borne of a new emphasis on ‘trade facilitation’ in the last round of World Trade Organisation global negotiations - the concern of trading partners, globally, being the complexity and obscurity of trading regulations and procedures in many emerging nations, which effectively constituted an actual trade barrier.

But, in resolving that, as it committed to the WTO it would, Kenya has now led the way on our planet.

For, if it takes 61 steps and three weeks, in a process that no one has ever documented, to import a motorbike into Kenya, Kenya is going to get fewer motorbikes.

Likewise, for Kenyan producers, 61 steps and three months, in a process no one has ever documented, to export leather handbags, means there aren’t going to be very many handbags exported: the race gets narrowed to the obsessive compulsive.

So KenTrade has now documented it all. By product, by steps, by paperwork, by individuals – photos and contacts of those responsible for each permit or approval – calculated the cost, the minimum and maximum time involved.

And, although the whole is geared towards international trade, for my local farmers, it captures everything needed to sell seeds here in Kenya too.

As it is, I’ve been involved in private sector data projects that succeeded, for a while, then floundered on partnership issues and funding. Last year, I was involved in an NGO-funded data project that I thought would change African agriculture forever, but has never made it to the public domain, and may never.

So, the painstaking process of collecting thousands of data points and actually launching, as KenTrade has done, possibly means more to me as a data project insider.

But now we have it: and only we do. This is a tool businesses don’t have anywhere else, so we need to use it, and export more.

And learn what can be done with information and do it everywhere: to get our businesses back on track, and even flying.