So much has been said about the East African Community that brings together five countries. A lot of this talk has bordered on Utopian visions for the region something that has gone a long way to whet our appetites for the final product that the EAC will have to offer.
However much as we are miles from the much talked about Utopia some small steps are worth recognising. After all, a long journey starts with just a single step. We have seen our leaders meeting several times to give the EAC project some shape and form and we all desire to live to see this region a much better place.
In my view there are two major challenges that the region faces and if these were addressed adequately then the region’s prosperity would be a matter of when not if. These two challenges are energy and transport. In my view energy is the biggest challenge actually.
The East African region is placed with some of the best water sources in the world. The Nile River is a very good example. Drawing water from the massive Lake Victoria, R. Nile has the potential to cut our energy demands significantly through hydro electric power dams.
Yet when you look around, the region suffers endless power cuts something that not only make life hard for many but slow down the process of industrialisation. While the middle class whine about the power cuts the industrialists count losses as they sit and wait or incur more by buying heavy generators to keep going.
We cannot expect to develop when our energy demands are much higher than what is available. We cannot hope to develop when power is always being cut off in our major cities and turning them into noisy places with all the generators buzzing away. The power companies should also stop the over used lie about maintenance. Just tell us the power is not enough and it has to be shared. We understand.
The second biggest challenge the region faces is transport. It is a shame that we have very little intra-region transport on water yet we have big lakes that are shared like Victoria, Tanganyika and Kivu. Our water transport often makes news when scores of people drown off a boat or ferry.
As for the railway it is even worse. We have continued to rely on an old network that was primarily set up to move copper, cotton and coffee from the hinterland to the coast. We have celebrated 50 years of growth after independence while our railways have not grown at all.
Thank God something is being done about this. A new standard gauge railway is being built from Mombasa and is expected to go all the way until Rwanda and South Sudan. The need to reduce on the reliance on our roads to move cargo from the ports cannot be over stated. It would also be nice to have commuter trains to deal with the urbanisation that is putting a lot of pressure on the cities.
When it comes to air transport, here the costs have made it a reserve for the very few at the top of the food chain. Yes we have some low cost airlines but these are not immune to the heavy taxes that drive up the cost of air transport in the region. If our governments are serious about integration then they should work out a way to reduce on the airport taxes or even consolidate the region so that a 50 minute flight from Kigali to Entebbe is considered a local flight.
The common option remains that of road transport and here we have to commend the governments that have done their best to keep the major highways in good condition. A lot has also been done to keep the roads safe although much more can still be done. Our highways continue to claim lots of lives every day.
For the region to develop and integrate at the same time there must be concerted efforts to address our energy challenges as well as our transport challenges. Integration is impossible if there is no energy to power industries involved in manufacturing and the movement of people, goods and services is still a huge challenge.
Once those two issues are well addressed, the region will be ready for the real take off. It is only then that we can compete with other continental economic giants.