It is Budget time East Africa. Very interesting and very difficult times. Deficits, balancing budgets, stimuli for growth, etc; nice words masking not so nice a problem.
Simply, the age old economic problem catches up with us yet again; Scarcity and choice. We have unlimited needs that we have to service with our limited resources.
East Africa has an estimated combined US$ 60 billion economy and an estimated population of just over 130 million. As a bloc that makes the region the third largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa and Nigeria (interestingly, Kenya also claims this position) and the second largest in population after Nigeria.
If we add in the resource base; minerals, tourist attractions, human capital, land and natural resources you notice there is a sleeping power house here. Sleeping? Yes. True, we just got our customs union in place now we are just a couple of steps away… monetary union and a political federation. Growth is on and it is happening.
There is even talk of Southern Sudan thinking of joining. But this means little to the average East African. Not without proper information on business and economy matters across East African borders. I will illustrate in the following story.
In the 60’s, Mr. Rajan, an Indian trader in Tanzania went from town to town selling his wares in Shinyanga and Mwadui areas of Tanzania. Mostly, he sold groceries with salt, cooking oil, sugar, sodas and soap topping his list.
The useful service he was rendering, his amicable nature and not to mention his undying spirit to perfect his poor Kiswahili (which forever bemused his Tanzanian customers because of his grammar and Indian accent) made him hugely popular.
Typical of African hospitality, the local old men invited him to join them for a game of the local board game bao and a drink of the local brew in the afternoons. But being a teetotaler he always politely declined.
One afternoon, as he was coming from the market he saw a game in progress and the crowd seemed very animated. His curiosity got the better of him. He then saw something that captivated him. The stones they were using had an unusual glitter. He asked for one which he was given and took it with him to Dar es Salaam where he had it examined as he went to replenish his groceries stock.
It was diamond. He went back and asked children to collect him these ‘stones’ in exchange for sweets. He raised enough money to set up a chain of businesses. True rags-to riches story.
The diamonds of Shinyanga have always been there. The locals were not informed on their value, they are still mostly poor. This is the power of being informed.
Question 1; do you think you are better off than the people of Shinyanga in the 60’s? Uganda has discovered huge oil deposits, Nile Basin treaty has been signed by East African countries, and the monetary union is on its way and then federation.
Kenya thinks of setting up a new port in Lamu and constructing a road linking it to landlocked Ethiopia. How are you, as an East African going to affect (or be affected by these developments? Ok, we are Rwandans, but are we effectively taking advantage of the developments in the country say, in Bugesera.
Information means more than news and while that is ok, we need to delve deeper. There should be real-time analyses that can be synthesized and utilized by the ordinary citizen. After all, to inform also means; ‘in’ (within) and ‘formation’ (development, creation, construction, pattern, structure, shape, arrangement and configuration).
It is the internal creation and not as my grandmother would put it, ‘…words coming through one ear and going out through another…”
If we don’t wait for another Mr. Rajan, perhaps our finance ministries will not have too huge a deficit to fund and the budget will be better balanced.
Sam Kebongo is a consultant at Serian Ltd.