MOMBASA, KENYA – Do you know where the avocados, pineapples, and mangoes you see at the store come from? How about those roses and flower bouquets you buy for your loved ones?
If you live in Europe, there’s a high chance they come from East Africa and a good chance they departed from Mombasa port, in the south of Kenya.
Mombasa is a gateway to the world for the landlocked countries of Eastern Africa. Out here, trucks from Uganda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and many more, unload their cargo onto ships bound for Europe.
This East African harbour is a gateway for the continent to the rest of the world, which is increasingly attracting investors, including the EU and China.
Europe is Mombasa’s “main market for fresh produce and flowers”, the harbour’s managing director, Captain William K. Ruto, told Euractiv. The Dutch port of Rotterdam accounts for 70% of the traffic, he said, followed by the United Kingdom, Germany, and France.
His meeting room, decorated with wooden wall panels and naval symbols, overlooks the harbour the captain runs. Currently, the bay sees more exports than imports. But Kenya is looking to boost both, as it eyes to strike a trade agreement with the EU and be more competitive on the world stage.
That involves upscaling its main harbour to be able to handle large quantities of goods faster. The target is to export 50% of fresh produce from Kenya via sea by 2030.
For the EU, investing in trade routes is about economic development and a way to push for a more environmentally friendly seaborne trade route over air freight, the bloc’s experts say.
That’s the reason the EU and its member states invest in the so-called Northern Corridor. The strategic trade route, identified as such by the African Union, starts and ends at Mombasa port, linking the Great Lakes region of Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya with the world.
The name of the game for the corridor out here is “efficiency”.
To make seaborne freight more attractive and trade routes greener, the transit time from the farmers’ fields to the European supermarket must be quick, going from weeks to days. With lower wait times, the flowers could also safely reach Japan, Australia, and the US.
To reduce the transit time, “the most important thing is digitalising and automating processes to the extent possible so that it improves the efficiencies and minimises human interference, which takes away the mischief around corruption and all that,” Ahmed Farah, Kenya director of Trademark East Africa, a non-profit “aid for trade” association, told Euractiv.
“We want technology and training” for the farmers and truck drivers in using that technology, Ruto said, when asked what he expects from partners to achieve that ambitious goal.
Large European investment is visible from the Mombasa port. The port’s authorities showed us how the two-way road is helping with traffic flows and how fast the cargo trucks go by.
This used to be a one-lane road, causing traffic jams. Avocado cargo from Tanzania can now be tracked throughout its route thanks to an electronic device and technology funded by the EU.
Alongside the Europeans, China’s presence is highly visible at the port.
It can be seen in the building decked in the colours of China Aid, in the scanners that identify the cargo, and in the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) that will transport cargo from the Mombasa Port and Nairobi, soon to be expanded to Uganda, South Sudan and Rwanda.
When arriving in Nairobi, we had taken the expressway from the airport to the city centre. The new route China built is said to have reduced traffic time from two hours to 30 minutes. It was finished in about a year – a record time for a 27-kilometre-long motorway.
As the world marks the 10-year anniversary of the launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the modern Silk Road of infrastructure projects linking China with 150 countries with roads, bridges and 5G networks, it is difficult to avoid comparison with the EU’s rival efforts.
To offer developing countries an “alternative” to the BRI, two years ago the EU launched its EUR300 billion Global Gateway scheme.
The Europeans want to offer a more transparent alternative, with donations of development aid – instead of loans, as is the case for China’s BRI, connecting the infrastructure to the Northern trade route.
But at first glance, the EU can also look less attractive: the projects take longer to come to life, there is a lot of paperwork, and control over the expenses is tight.
That said, business association leaders told Euractiv they hoped Kenya and other countries involved in the development of the Northern Corridor would privilege the needs of the trade industry, and quality of the future infrastructures funded by third countries or the EU, rather than only their speedy development.
They called for these infrastructures to fit the “master plan” that is the network of routes and digital connectivity that the Northern Corridor should become. In their talks, they hinted thatsome investments might be politically driven.
Asked how they choose their partners, Captain Ruto answered with a smile:
“We are open to anybody, anybody open to business, we don’t restrict ourselves to one entity”.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox/Alexandra Brzozowski/Zoran Radosavljevic]
Read more with EURACTIV