WHEN it comes to the economies of the East African Community (EAC), agriculture stands tall as the backbone. Not only does it contribute to food security, but it also fuels employment, industrial development, trade and investment.
In a recent report by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics authority, it was revealed that in 2022, the EAC exported agri-food products worth a staggering 2.16 billion Euros (Sh330b) to the EU.
This figure represented an impressive increase of 26.2 per cent from the previous year. Moreover, intra-EAC trade in agricultural products witnessed a remarkable 33 per cent growth from 2018 to 2022.
However, despite the significant strides made in value addition, a considerable proportion of agricultural products from the region are still exported in their raw form, due to a combination of demand and supply-side challenges. These statistics highlight the EAC’s untapped potential if supply side and market access obstacles are effectively addressed.
The hurdles encompass access to market information, enhanced productivity throughout the value chain, compliance with international standards, improved post-harvest handling, logistics, branding, and more.
The key to unlocking the potential market opportunitiesincluding through the African Continental Free Trade Area lies in tackling these obstacles head-on.
Given the multitude of challenges across the agricultural value chain and the competing priorities for limited national resources, the support of Development Partners and other external resources becomes critical. Partners such as the European Union, working within the policy and institutional framework of the Partner States and under the oversight of the EAC Secretariat, are making invaluable contributions in this regard.
A prime example of this collaborative effort is the EU-EAC Market Access Upgrade Programme (MARKUP), launched in 2018 with 35m euro funding from the EU, aimed at bolstering exports in selected value chains across five EAC Partner States: Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania.
The Programme has made significant progress in empowering farmer groups and enterprises involved in coffee, tea, cocoa, spices, avocados, and other horticultural products. By reorienting their business strategies, helping them acquire international market certifications like Global G.A.P and Rainforest Alliance, and connecting them with buyers, MARKUP has enabled over 200 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to export their products.
Over the span of four years, the EAC-EU collaboration has not only facilitated market access but has also provided a ripple effect in other agriculture-related sectors such as agro-inputs, advisory services, packaging, and transport, among others.
These benefits are expected to extend beyond the duration of the programme, laying a solid foundation for further growth. Under the umbrella of MARKUP, more than 30,000 farmers and business enterprises have received training in various areas, including international market requirements, traceability, industry certifications, value addition, tariff and nontariff barriers, and governance, among others.
SMEs, cooperatives, and business support organisations have been equipped with essential tools such as pulping machines, fruit processors, and moisture meters.
Coffee washing stations have undergone upgrades with new buildings, storage facilities, and equipment. These collective efforts have resulted in enhanced value addition, competitiveness, and a notable surge in exports. In addition to supporting farmers and enterprises,
MARKUP has also empowered business support organisations by providing them with the necessary tools to cater to the private sector. Support has been extended to national standards bureaus in developing and harmonising product standards for cocoa and coffee.
Laboratories in Kenya, Burundi, and Uganda have received equipment and obtained ISO certification and accreditation. Furthermore, a Quality Portal has been created as a convenient one-stop shop, offering comprehensive information on quality regulations, standards, and buyer requirements.
The accomplishments of MARKUP over the past four years demonstrate the significant headroom to grow agriexports from the EAC region, as well as trade within the Community.
This success story lays a robust foundation for continued collaboration between the EAC and the European Union, as well as other Development Partners, in contributing to the region’s economic development through trade.
It goes without saying that growth in exports of agricultural products should not be at the expense of assuring food security for the rising populations in the EAC.
There is now increased awareness of the harmful effects of certain pesticides and herbicides, which calls for strategies to encourage organic farming.
More resources must be mobilized to mitigate the effects of climate change and soil degradation, and to commercialise innovations to improve productivity.
The role of trade in unlocking the potential of East Africa’s agricultural sector is undeniable. Bringing policy makers together, disseminating research, and linking farmer groups and SMEs to markets will go a long way in making this potential a reality. Collaborative partnerships are essential.
• The writer is the Coordinator of the EU-EAC Market Access Upgrade Programme.