Is East Africa still a dream?

For Rwanda, joining the East African Community in June of 2007 – and with that the prospect of becoming part of East Africa, the country – was a source of considerable pride and celebration.

For Rwanda, joining the East African Community in June of 2007 – and with that the prospect of becoming part of East Africa, the country – was a source of considerable pride and celebration.

On paper, East Africa looks like a beautiful—more than just a country; a land. From the warm salty Swahili coasts of Mombasa and Zanzibar, conjuring up images of three-wheeled tuk-tuks and Indian spices, to the hilly jungle rainforests and Intore dancers of Rwanda, embedded thick in the heart of Africa.

The great cities of Nairobi and Arusha, intellectual heartlands under Kilimanjaro, and the laid-back sleepy town feel of Bujumbura, the crocodile-ridden banks of Lake Tanganyika.

I’ve painted a pretty picture, right? East Africa, considering its physical grandeur (and thus tourism opportunities), historical sites, population and size of economy, if federated would make a worthy, if not superior, competitor to South Africa as a magnet of both financial and political investment.

It would certainly hold the gravitas on Africa of any other country and in dealing with partners such as the European Union or the United Nations. But the things that make a country make itself important are still missing.

East Africa has the potential to be not just a “good” third-world country, but a true peer in the world, not just a country that is great at sucking on the international umbilical cord, but a country with its own strong marketable brands and reputation.

This is the way any country raises status, increases reputation, and raises the brand name of East Africa. But throughout this land the private-sector is still following—sometimes distantly—along the trail of the government. And the private sector still needs to come alive.

If healthy government is the skeleton of the country, the private sector is not only the muscle, but the ligaments. This means all private sector companies which build the image of community – cell phone operators, bus and airline services, banks, print-media, even a local grocery chain—must take charge.

MTN Rwanda works in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, but not Burundi. CelTel is available in the others, but not Rwanda.

Bancor is up for sale, but not to Barclays or Fina Bank (Kenyan) but to a Nigerian company. There are bus services linking Kigali to Nairobi, and further to Dar es Salaam or even Juba, the Sudan; but again not to Burundi. And there is a new (very) low-cost airline, in Kenya, that flies to Entebbe and even Goma, but no, not yet to Kigali.

East Africa at its best is the force that keeps the Democratic Republic of the Congo in check, but without this internal communal infrastructure, infrastructure of the mind and of an imagined community—nationalism—it is just as criminal as the Congo at neglecting itsw potential. We are getting there, and we will get there, but what few seem to realize that in fact it’s the private sector that can kickstart real integration.

In Rwanda it’s always “the government, the government, the president, the president,” that makes the news, but governments will and have listened to the private-sector.

Let that new start-up low-cost airline make a lot of money and prove that there is a vast market for affordable air-travel in and within East Africa, and the governments may just relax visa regulations and passport control.

Nation Media Group, owners of daily newspapers in three East African capitals, can get into the game in Kigali, or Buj, and bring new levels of credible, respectable journalism to the region. They can start printing literature from East Africa; East Africa can begin to grow.

Or maybe a certain Nairobi grocery store, set to open its first doors outside Kenya in Union Trade Centre next month, will finally replace the circus-act of obscene capitalism that their predecessor, City Market, had paraded through Rwanda.

It is high time the whirlwind of idiotic business—and yes, that includes companies such as MTN, which seem to have no accountability to those it serves—are blown out of this economy, and a new trade settles that fosters not sustainability, but growth, and enhances the image and status of East Africa as a whole.

Right now I am in Nairobi, a serious city where people take themselves very seriously. I have been to the Nakumatts here, not unlike the one—and soon another—set to open in Rwanda. It must be one of the most successful, and civically successful, foreign-owned business anywhere in the world.

Not only is it by far and away the most popular and numerous chain, but they fund public garbage bins throughout all of Nairobi. That is an example of private business affecting and working with government to make a country better.

But we are not there yet, not even close. Because as I wander the aisles of the supermarket, I can find not one bag of Rwandan coffee, oh so supposedly fantastic in Kigali.

Not one bag of Kivu bean, Rwanda’s finest export can be found in the best store in Nariobi. Am I crazy for looking? I am  in East Africa, right?

And on the streets of the city, this Athens of East Africa, this New York of East Africa, not a single copy of The New Times, new or old, is out for sale.

Rwanda seems far, far away. East Africa seems not to include us yet.


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