AFRICANGLOBE – You have embarked on a long train ride in a rural Africa. The train is in bad shape, the ride is bumpy and breakdowns frequent.
You wonder when you will arrive at the destination, or if you ever will. But after a tortuous first half of the trip, the train is starting to gain speed.
There are still a number of unnecessary stops, but the destination is now in sight and passengers are becoming upbeat.
Just as the train is about to enter the station, it is overtaken by three trains, which had been accelerating even faster.
This train could be Kenya in East Africa’s race to reach Middle Income status.
It is in East Africa, and with almost $800 in income per capita, it is the closest to meeting the international Middle Income threshold of $1,000, but its EAC partners Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania are catching up fast. Kenya could be the first EAC country to reach Middle Income status by 2020, but only if it achieves its potential of about six percent – uninterrupted – economic growth.
However, if Kenya’s economy only grows at 3.7 percent (the average of the last decade), this train will likely be overtaken by Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda in the next 10 years.
Middle Income status would still be possible, but only by 2037. Today, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have similar per-capita incomes of around $550, substantially below Kenya’s.
But they have been steadily catching up. If past trends continue, Kenya would still be ahead in 2020, but the gap would gradually narrow and by 2022, Rwanda would take first place, followed closely by Tanzania and Uganda.
The fact that most of East Africa can reach Middle Income in the next 10 years is remarkable. Today, the EAC is one of the fastest growing regions in the world.
If Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda maintain their ongoing growth momentum, and if Kenya accelerates, all four countries will reach Middle Income status within the next 10 years.
For the first time since independence, sustainable development appears possible for East Africa. Last week I was in Rwanda.
According to Professor Paul Collier, this small country has achieved, what no other country in Africa has accomplished: the “hat-trick” of high growth, significant poverty reduction and reduced inequality.
Making it to the Middle Income station is not the end of the journey. Most economic challenges will remain, including fighting poverty.
At an annual income of $1,000, the average East African would only “earn” $83 per month, or less than $3 per day.
However, being a Middle Income country brings you into a new league of countries, and the right to be compared with the so-called “emerging economies”.
Global players have also taken note. No week goes by without a major international company announcing plans to expand its East African operations or to relocate there, often in Nairobi.
Regional integration is one way to reach Middle Income faster, or to help Kenya’s train to reach the station sooner.
It’s a “win-win” solution because larger markets allow companies to reap economies of scale, produce a larger set of goods in greater quantities and thus increase variety, and reduce cost for consumers.
Already today, Kenyan firms are investing in Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda, and these countries benefit from cheaper, higher quality products.
Much more could be done. Agriculture and transport are two areas where reforms are badly needed to improve intra-regional trade. East Africa could easily feed itself simply by allowing markets to work.
While Kenya has a structural food deficit, Tanzania and Uganda typically have surpluses of basic food commodities.
If these three countries traded with each other more effectively, Kenyans would pay less for food, especially maize, while Tanzanian and Ugandan farmers would earn more.
Priority should be given to regional roads and corridors as it is currently costly, sometimes impossible, to move goods across the region.
The port of Mombasa is the gateway for most of East Africa’s products. Unfortunately, this is one of the worst performing ports in the world, and its closest competitor – the port of Dar es Salaam – is achieving even less.
Today, Mombasa transacts in one year what Singapore handles in a week. A better functioning port would increase the flow of goods, reduce costs and attract industries, many of which are looking for a new home, as Asia is becoming more expensive.
It would also favour the flow of goods transiting to and from landlocked countries (Rwanda and Uganda) and operate as a catalyst for the region.
Infrastructure, which connects people and markets will be critical for East Africa to become one of the world’s new emerging regions.
One huge challenge remains the railways. The day when Kenyans will board a train to Kampala with perfect confidence that they will reach there comfortably, reliably and fast, is the day you will know that the region is firmly on the Middle Income track.
The writer is the Lead Economist for the World Bank in Kenya.