China Square debacle shows there is work to do on ‘buy Kenya build Kenya’

China Square in Nairobi on February 27, 2023.  

Photo credit: File | Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

The Cabinet Secretary for Investments, Trade and Industry, Moses Kuria, raised furore with his directive regarding the China Square store based at Kenyatta University.

A week later the issue was far from being clarified. In the midst of the discussions though there are several issues that come out and need debate.

The question of international trade relations is important for every country. Several years ago, the traditional focus of foreign relations between developed and developing countries based on aid started giving way to trade.

Consequently, the rules of engagement between countries on trade have global significance and must be undertaken within that broad appreciation.

Consequently, one of the key questions must be: what is Kenya’s trade policy approach in its relations with China? How does this align with international commitments, such as the Most-Favoured-Nations treatment principle and non-discrimination under the World Trade Organization?

Second, is an issue this column addressed a few months ago within the context of potato production and use by KFC. It relates to how to best support local traders. It was the driving imperative for Mr Kuria’s directives and must be behind the idea of a Kenya Centre.

A Kenya Centre is not equivalent to supporting local traders. Yet if we do not fundamentally deal with the fundamentals under which traders operate, including the cost of goods they sell, the operating environment and competition, the efforts of promoting local trade will not be successful.

If we must improve the plight of Kenyan traders, our focus must be on two sides to the debate. The first is about improving local competitiveness.

The question must be about the goods that get sold in the country. Where do our traders source them from?

We need to improve our production of various goods, including the manufacturing sector so that sales are based on locally produced goods as much as possible.

When these are from abroad, we need to negotiate with other countries as part of our trade diplomacy, so that these are obtained at affordable prices. On the other hand, we must take seriously the 'buy Kenya and build Kenya' slogan.

There are many locally produced goods. Yet despite our procurement rules, we do not promote the purchase of local goods.

The efforts of Mr Kuria need to move to innovations that will lead to more purchases of local goods and services by national and county governments and by the private sector.

This will enable us to expand our environment for local traders and enable them to make more profits.

If we take that approach we will be able to address the real issues around the China Centre business as opposed to the current reactive approach that focuses on symptoms and not the issue.

In doing so we have to appreciate the international trade regimes and rules and work around them and not be oblivious to their existence and contents.

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