From 14th to 16th of this month, November 2017, I was privileged to be part of the East African Business and Entrepreneurship Conference (EABEC), which took place in Dar es Salaam and was organized by the East African Business Council. I am still mulling over the wealth of knowledge I got from the conference. There was certainly no shortage of intelligent minds and influential people from the private sector as well as government. For a young entrepreneur like me, the harvest was plentiful.
The range of topics discussed, were drawn from the following sectors: Agribusiness, Creative Industries, Textile Industry, Urbanization, E-commerce, Banking and Finance and Health Entrepreneurship, among others. The depth and breadth of these discussions cannot be exhaustively discussed in this post.
I therefore want to focus this post towards one prominent feature of almost all the discussions we held in the conference and that is regional integration in the EAC.
It was right and fitting that deepening regional integration was the very first topic discussed. This eventually trickled into other subsequent discussions.
Integration on a primary level means combining different entities so that they become one whole. The East African Community, which comprises of 6 member countries currently, aims to achieve integration within the region.
Ambassador Liberat Mfumukeko, Secretary General, East African Community said, “Regional Integration is desirable and we can’t do without it. Individually our countries are small and weak but together we can do greater things”.
“East Africa is the most integrated region in Africa but there is still a long way to go,” Mr. Nicholas Nesbitt, MD, IBM Central and East Africa said. Mr. Nicholas’s remarks allude to the fact that we still have a number of challenges to overcome in making integration a stronger reality. Rather than focusing on the challenges though, I would like to emphasize some of the solutions suggested so that we can bridge that “long-way-to-go” gap.
At the forefront of any interaction is trust, the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. As members of the EAC, trust is a seemingly obvious but very vital ingredient.
Mr. Dennis Karera, MD of Kigali Heights, Rwanda said, “We need to trust each other for integration. There is no school for trust and no professor called Trust”.
As we learn to trust each other, there is a need for skills improvement and building of enterprise – initiative and resourcefulness. We need to prove our worth on the regional and global market place with good quality products and services that meet international standards. It’s one way we’ll favourably compete.
This was emphasized by Mr Felix Mosha, MD, IBM Holdings, Tanzania when he said, “Progress is determined by enterprise. People will deal with us because of competence, not pity!”.
Mr. Felix Mosha further said we need to search and identify common problems and provide common solutions. Common capabilities will thereafter be transformed to a common prosperity within the region. He emphasized that debate and disagreements should not deter us from common goals as we work towards a shared vision.
In addition to shared ideologies, other suggestions that arose during the discussions were a free market, free movement of capital, an encouragement of joint ventures, diversifying the manufacturing base, strengthening institutional capacity as well as strengthening research and development.
More to this, we need to have a sense of economic patriotism where we buy East African products and market our products beyond the region too. As one speaker said, “Buy East African, Build East Africa.
Ambassador Liberat Mfumukeko mentioned that our potentials are the resources at hand, the large market and young creative population. If we take advantage of our potentials, we can grow East Africa to greater heights. It pleased me that he highlighted creative youth as a major potential. It is upon us as individuals and organizations to take advantage of this great potential at our disposal.
As integration is discussed on a formal and sometimes aloof level, we must question what this means for the ordinary citizen. Does the ordinary citizen understand regional integration and the impacts it will have. I am happy that some entities are attempting to address this and shine a spotlight on this part of the equation. One of these entities is the IIDEA, the Incubator for Integration and Development in East Africa. Their tagline is “Integration Made Real for Citizens”. It is a joint initiative between GIZ, the EAC secretariat and the Regional Dialogue Committee.
As a speaker in the Cotton and Textile session, I attended the EABEC as an IIDEA beneficiary having taken part in the fashion incubation program they held in partnership with Culture and Development for East Africa (CDEA) earlier this year. The program I was part of has tangibly impacted my business and me as an individual in terms of broadening my knowledge and networks. To illustrate this, the morning after the conference, I had the opportunity to sit and discuss with one of the Tanzanian beneficiaries of the same program: Shahbaaz Sayeed. We discussed his business and a few strategies to take it further. This was his initiative to reach out to me and our meeting was completely independent of the conference. This simply highlights how there are positive ripple effects of the incubation program.
Integration for the ordinary citizen will have to involve the transformation of mindset. We need to think, know and believe we are East African and not just Kenyan or Tanzanian etc. In an informal conversation with Mr. Adam Zuku, the Chief Executive Officer of TEGAMAT, he emphasized that we need to start by teaching young children that they are East African. This was further reinforced in my mind by another informal conversation with Angelika Farhan from the EABC who said she grew up consciously identifying herself as European much as she is German by nationality.
In one of the formal panel discussions, Mr. Felix Mosha, MD of IBM Holdings, Tanzania said, “Think East African. If we can think East African, we can support each other. Think East African, Act East African, Transform East Africa.”
There is a clear need for us to continually foster being East African and supporting the region as a whole.
In addition, as an artist, I couldn’t help but reflect on the role that the Arts has to play in fostering regional integration. During the first day of the conference, we sang the East African Community anthem. This was a vital element for it signified the unified front we have and are working towards. For me, this is an indication of the impact the Arts can have in creating a positive image in the mindset of citizens of East Africa. We can expand this further into other forms of art and I would like to urge any artist reading this to translate the idea of integration into works of art. I feel that different forms of Art will play the role of bridging the gap between policy makers and the normal ‘ordinary’ citizen.
Like a plate of food with different delicacies, I ate a variety of knowledge at the EABEC. I will continue to let that knowledge impact and change my present and future businesses as I execute what I learnt, for we as the private sector need to actively play our part. There will be no point in the elaborate discourse if it does not translate into real tangible results.
In addition, I join other entrepreneurs in lobbying governments to create a better environment for business. The right infrastructure and favourable policies are key in assisting free and fair trade and investment across borders within the region. In addition, they provide a suitable backbone for innovation to thrive.
We all need to play our part in encouraging a vibrant and unified regional economy within the East African Community. What is your part to play?