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African connections
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 11 - 03 - 2014

With a market of nearly 400 million people, total annual exports of $110 billion, and total annual imports of $100 billion, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is Africa's largest regional economic bloc.
However, Egyptian businessmen attending COMESA meetings this year and held recently in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been worried that the freeze on Cairo's membership in the African Union (AU) will damage its business prospects in the region and that the country is not making best advantage of its membership of the bloc.
Amany Asfour, the first woman and the first Egyptian to head the COMESA Business Council, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the freeze on AU membership was not hampering Egypt's ties with COMESA members.
Any misconceptions about Egypt in Africa, she said, were a by-product of European media prejudice and could be corrected by appropriate action.
Over the next two months Egypt will be staging marketing campaigns in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Sudan to introduce Egyptian products to these countries.
The campaigns will include exchanges of visits by Egyptian and African business people, and the focus will be on medium, small, and micro projects on the continent. Egyptian companies are also interested in taking part in infrastructure, agriculture, and mining ventures in Africa, Asfour said.
Egypt will also play host to the Second COMESA Tourism Conference in the second half of 2014, an event that will bring together hoteliers, restaurateurs, travel agents, and industry specialists from various eastern and southern African countries.
“Our presence in COMESA hasn't been fully utilised. Until recently, Egypt exported nearly $2.5 billion to the COMESA countries, including $1 billion to Libya and Sudan last year,” Asfour remarked.
Many experts hope to see an improvement in the shipping and transport infrastructure of the continent. Poor roads, underdeveloped transport systems, and the lack of proper insurance and credit arrangements have all been cited as impediments to intra-regional trade.
Since her appointment as head of the COMESA Business Council, Asfour has been trying to promote a project connecting Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda by road. The project, once completed, is expected to give a considerable boost to inter-African trade.
One of the areas in which Egypt can promote its ties with COMESA is manufacturing.
“Egypt has a lot of potential for COMESA, especially in industry. Most COMESA countries suffer from a shortage of manufactured products, and their markets have plenty of room for Egyptian industries,” Asfour said.
Egypt is also interested in importing agricultural products and minerals from COMESA members. Currently, Egypt imports tea from Kenya, coffee and meat from Ethiopia, and copper from Zambia.
Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter's Renaissance Dam have not marred Egyptian relations with COMESA members, but the issue needs to be addressed, according to Asfour.
“The Ethiopian public needs to understand that Egypt doesn't wish to impede Ethiopia's development,” she said, adding that stronger ties between business and civil society could help clear the atmosphere between Egypt and Ethiopia.
Nasser Bayan, chairman of the Egyptian-Libyan Society for Investors and Businessmen, agreed that Egypt had yet to utilise the full potential of its COMESA connections.
Explaining some of the problems involved in transport, Bayan noted that “to bring merchandise to Zambia, I have to go first to South Africa and then to Zambia. The same problem exists if I want to go to Kenya. This is the problem of doing business in the African market.”
Not only is it hard to reach land-locked African nations with poor roads and inadequate landing and storage capacity, even the banking and insurance sectors also have their problems.
“There is always a problem with financial transfers. African countries, unlike in Europe and America, don't order merchandise in advance, but expect to buy stuff that is already in stock. So to do business with them, you have to make the products and store them in Africa and then wait for the customers to come calling,” according to Bayan.
Hussein Mahran, a member of the Egyptian Council for Economic Affairs, said that “if we look at COMESA's imports, we notice that its member countries import much of their needs from across the world, although the same products could be better supplied by Egypt.”
Mahran said that Egypt could supply high-quality kitchenware, shoes, textiles, and aluminum products cheaper than the countries currently exporting to COMESA members.
Intra-regional trade in Africa stands at 4.2 per cent of Egypt's trade at present. “Our goal is to bring this figure to eight per cent,” he said.
To invest in COMESA, Egypt can also use credit from the African Development Bank, something that Chinese and European companies are already doing.
Mohamed Dawoud, director of the Commercial Representation Agency, said he had been pleased with the manner in which trade between Egypt and COMESA had grown over the past ten years.
“Egypt had a trade deficit with COMESA in 2003. But this has turned into a surplus since 2004. In 2008, our exports to COMESA reached $1.5 billion, then exceeded $2 billion in 2010. In 1998, Egypt exported only $45 million to these countries,” he said.

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