Kenya is an import economy—imports just about everything from garlic and oranges to construction material and heavy industrial machinery.
The general view, which I largely accept, is that an import economy constrains economic growth and development due to several reasons.
The first is that an import economy dampens the ability of local manufacturing to meet the needs of the local market: instead foreign nations meet the country’s needs. As a result, imports lock out local manufacturers from benefitting from domestic demand.
Secondly, an import economy essentially creates a situation where domestic demand generates jobs and income for foreign countries. As a result, local job creation is muted because the market has been captured by foreign entities.
That said, since we are importers it is important to find means through which the situation can be leveraged for economic growth, as there are some benefits to the status quo.
The first is that an import economy creates market capture that can be exploited by domestic industry. In being an import economy, it is clear which products Kenyans buy and the related market size for each type can be easily estimated.
This provides a basis on which government can launch effective import-substitution strategies as there is a sure-bet market to which local industry can sell if their goods are of similar use, quality and value.
Secondly, innovation is garnered through imports. As an import economy, the country gets a clear sense of the new ideas as well as the standards and features that sell in domestic, regional and international markets.
When a Kenyan buys a snack made in Italy, it provides local snack manufacturers an opportunity to see the quality of snacks that garner an international market. Thus imports provide a source of innovation and standards that can be emulated by local manufacturers.
Thirdly, because an import economy is flooded with products from around the world, it provides an opportunity to create export-oriented manufacturing where local manufacturers learn about what products sell regionally or internationally.
Thus imports provide the foundation for creating a manufacturing sector that is export-oriented.
Through learning about standards and innovation in the point elucidated above, local manufactures have a clear idea of what sells on the international market.
Thus, through the analysis of imports government can determine priority industries in the country and track imports in those industries to get a clear idea of what type and quality of product can be the foundation for the country’s own export push for manufactured products.
Thus imports can be leveraged for both import-substitution and export-orientation strategies; the two are not mutually exclusive.
However, the negative effect of imports can only be mitigated if there is deliberate effort both from government and manufacturers to exploit the gains that imports provide.
In doing so, Kenya can transition from being a country reliant on imports to one where local manufacturers regain domestic market share and also build export capacity and sales.