The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013 has turned into a major economic development project initiated to open up and strengthen trade ties between China and countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, and beyond.
And as the mechanism clocks ten years since it was put forward, it has demonstrated the potential to impact the China and Africa trade relationship, and for good. Its design has crafted a solution to the imbalance that had long characterized trade between the East Asian economic powerhouse and African countries. It’s an elaborate plan to shift the conversation to win-win outcomes.
One of the key hallmarks and objectives of the One Belt One Road framework is the goal to build and upgrade infrastructure, that includes railways, roads, ports, and airports, in participating countries. Developed infrastructure, as seen in most African countries, can facilitate trade by reducing transportation costs, transit times, and logistical bottlenecks. In this, China has really played a significant role.
However, the impact of BRI has perhaps been evident in trade facilitation measures, such as the harmonization of customs procedures and the reduction of non-tariff barriers, which the framework promotes. The initiative is quickly streamlining trade processes, making it easier for African countries to export their goods to China.
Today, there are more African products entering the vast Chinese Market compared to the period before BRI was birthed. The biggest achievement of BRI is the easing of trade rules for a number of African countries by the Chinese customs authorities which now allow more agricultural products from the continent into China.
Courtesy of BRI, some countries like Kenya have now signed revised protocols granting the East African country more access to the Chinese consumer market. Shipments of flowers, avocadoes, tea, and anchovies or ‘dagaa’ that have started gaining popularity in China are a classic example.
For instance, since the first shipment of Avocadoes to China was flagged off a year ago, Kenya has exported over 3,000 tons of the fruits to China, providing a ready market and earning more income to farmers. China has cleared 15 firms to export avocado into its vast market.
Tanzanian farmers and businessmen also started getting their products such as soybeans to China. The same is true of their counterparts in Ethiopia whose coffee have hit supermarket shelves across Chinese towns. Rwanda too has seen her coffee making their way to China.
Countries in the south such as Namibia and Botswana now export their beef products to China in large scale just like South Africa is doing with its flowers and fruits, after the easing of restrictions. China is now a major destination for African agricultural products and this has been done through numerous platforms courtesy of BRI.
The mechanism therefore came as an answer to prayers made in the past, more so in Africa, where leaders expressed the need to export more products tariff-free to the lucrative Chinese market noting that this was going to have a positive effect on their economies.
China granted this request, waiving tariffs for taxable products originating from a number of Least Developed Countries. Chinese authorities even went further and committed to boosting African imports to at least US$300 billion by 2025. To achieve this, Beijing indicated that a wide range of products to be included in the zero-tariff treatment will be increased.
Besides increasing the scope of products enjoying zero tariff treatment, China’s trade promotion program principally aims at opening avenues popular as “green lanes” for African agricultural exports to China by speeding up the inspection and quarantine procedures. What’s more, China undertook to provide 10 billion US dollars of trade finance to support African exports and build in China a pioneering zone for in-depth China-Africa trade and economic cooperation as well as a China-Africa industrial park for Belt and Road cooperation.
Through the China International Import Expo, the China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo, online shopping festivals, and other platforms, China is fulfilling its promise to help African products enter its market.
China, through BRI, has also been rallying major companies back home to go out, invest, and establish operations in Africa. These Chinese investments are creating economic opportunities and stimulating exports from Africa to China. By investing in sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, and technology, China is aiding African countries to diversify their economies and produce goods that are in demand in the Chinese market.
Here in Kenya, the Kenya China Chamber of Commerce (KCCC) was established. It is a platform for Investment & Trade cooperation between Kenya and China through supporting Chinese companies to do business with Kenyan companies.
The chamber is specifically aimed at strengthening and facilitating business cooperation between the two countries, accelerate trade and encourage investment in Kenya to increase local employment and its impact is there to see a few years after it was launched.
It’s also true that through BRI, China has been encouraging African countries to diversify their export products. This is besides the fact that the China-Africa cooperation and technology transfer, has enhanced African countries’ capacity in various sectors. Skills development, knowledge transfer, and the promotion of entrepreneurship are empowering African businesses to compete more effectively in international markets.
Through the broader BRI framework, China and individual African countries may negotiate bilateral trade agreements and initiatives to address specific trade imbalances and enhance economic cooperation.
It’s important to note that the effectiveness of the BRI in addressing China-Africa trade imbalances has been pegged on a number of issues such as specific projects undertaken, policies implemented, and the broader economic conditions.
Addressing trade imbalances requires a comprehensive approach and its laudable that China championed a platform to address that.
Belt and Road has been ten years now, and it is here and will continue to shape the relations between China and its development partners. African nations ought to ensure that they maximize the benefits of being part of the framework.
Eric Biegon is a Multimedia Journalist at Kenya Broadcasting Corporation