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Nairobi conference to unlock opportunities in blue economy

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By FRED OLUOCH
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Kenya’s Foreign Affairs PS Macharia Kamau spoke with Fred Oluoch on how the region can benefit more from its waters.

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Kenya will be spending $8 million on the International Blue Economy Conference, how will the country benefit?

The $8 million is the estimated budget of the conference. This is not a government conference, but an international event convened by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who invited other countries and the United Nations to join.

So far, 134 countries have responded and we have 5,340 delegates who have registered.

The government is mobilising funds and is not getting money from the Treasury because it is not wise to always put the burden of holding conferences on the taxpayers, even though the beneficiary will be taxpayers.

The government will only spend on two delegates per country from poor countries who need assistance.

In terms of benefits, we are opening a new business avenue in blue economy because our core business stream has been land-based; be it industries, agriculture and the property sector that have been driving our economy for the past 55 years.

The Kenyan part of the ocean, lakes and rivers have potential in fisheries, tourism, maritime transport, off-shore mining. What has been stopping the country from exploiting the marine environment?

This is a question that the Kenyan people need to answer themselves because the capital is inland and the main drivers of the economy have been people from hinterland.

I also think that 75 per cent of the fish come from Lakes Victoria and Turkana and you would imagine it would be the other way round because we have a bigger sea surface with many more fish in the sea.

It is simply the orientation Kenyans should use this conference to help people think differently.

Statistics show that Western Indian Ocean countries account for an estimated $22 billion in the blue economy, but Kenya’s share is only 20 per cent — mainly coming from tourism. What are the plans to increase Kenya’s share?

I think it is a lot more than $22 billion. The western Indian Ocean countries’ potential is phenomenal.

The gas and oil potential alone is much more than that. Mozambique is already pumping gas while Tanzanian is sourcing developer. There is no reason why Kenya, Somalia and other countries on the eastern shoreline of Africa cannot do the same thing.

Kenya has the potential to grow its own fishing and processing capability in Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu. Of course there is whole tourism, which drove a big chunk of out economies in the 1990s.

If the blue economy is up and running, what percentage can it contribute to the GDP?

It is anywhere between three and six per cent, and if we grow by 10 per cent courtesy of growing blue economy, then we can transform the country significantly.

But it depends on how efficient we are at exploiting the opportunities available. That also depends on if we find significant natural resources under our ocean and lakes such as oil, gas, gold and other minerals available at sea, that could transform our economy entirely.

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The people who go out and exploit these resources are companies and all the government does is to tax.

There is the dispute with Somalia over the territorial waters of the Indian Ocean. How can such disputes be resolved to ensure that the two countries benefit on mutual grounds?

Well, this is not part of the blue economy conference, but it is in the interest of the both nations to find an amicable solution to the dispute because as long as there is an impasse of any kind, that the resources cannot be exploited to the maximum.

Marine safety, especially on Lake Victoria, is a major concern for Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. What regional approach do you intend to adopt to this issue?

Well, if you have a blue economy, then you start thinking about those things. You cannot exploit the blue economy when your transport systems are not driven by safety and better equipment.

Second, you cannot say you are going to plan your economy and what you are worried about is accidents.

We have to learn to think strategically, cargo by water transport because more wealth will be coming to create a better transportation network if there is more demand for people to use the lake as a highway to northern Tanzania, southern Uganda, Burundi, and eastern Rwanda and eastern DRC. You can cut the time and cost to these places by using the lake.

One disturbing recent developments is that the government has allowed China to export fish to Kenya despite the country having an ocean, lakes and rivers. How did this come about?

It is only disturbing if you see things in a conflicting way. Nobody forces us to buy and eat that fish. You cannot say there is no crisis there, but Kenya is still a net importer of fish precisely because we are not exploiting our blue economy.

Our neighbours, Uganda and Tanzania, are also not able to supply us sufficiently because they too are not exploiting the blue economy maximally.

It is not the government but Kenyan business people who are importing and creating the demand for Chinese fish.

It is for us to decide that we have enough fish in our ocean, lakes and rivers and create more aquaculture. There is no reason why we should be importing fish when we can produce our own. China only sees the opportunity and the market.

Latest reports say that Kenya’s fish production has declined by 21 per cent from 2013 to 2016 due to the pollution. Does the government have strategies to reverse this?

First of all we are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our job is to put up a conference that has recognised that Kenya needs to do something radically different about maximising the opportunities offered by the blue economy, including the production of fish.

So, as one of the outcomes, we have projects around the blue economy worth $14 billion.

These are projects that are going to be put on display. If the over 1,800 businesspeople and investors that are going to attend the conference pick on these projects and put their money here, they can transform our economy.

The projects are there including fish production, but the only way is to increase the investments we have. Governments only tax, but it is for local and international investors to pick what we will be offering.

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