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Kenya-EU trade deal on track?

December 18, 2023

Kenya and the European Union have officially signed a trade agreement that will allow the East African nation to export goods duty free to the EU market.

A woman stands in a greenhouse in the middle of pink roses
Some 70% of Kenya's flower production is sold in the European UnionImage: Zhang Chen/Photoshot/picture alliance

"Today's agreement heralds a new dawn where Kenyan goods gain immediate duty- and quota-free access to the European market," Kenyan Trade Minister Rebecca Miano said before signing the trade deal at a ceremony in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, on Monday.

"Over time, European goods will also gain preferential access to the Kenyan market," she added.

The European Union Council approved the trade agreement last week, but it still needs to be ratified by both Kenya's parliament and the European Parliament before it comes into force.

"The core of this arrangement is to put real money into the pockets of ordinary people," said Kenyan President William Ruto at the signing ceremony.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, who was also in attendance, called the partnership a "win-win situation on both sides."

The pact comes as Brussels seeks stronger economic relations with Africa to counter China's influence, while promoting development commitments between the EU and Kenya in areas including environmental protection and labor rights.

Duty-free and quota-free exports

The EU-Kenya Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), which was finalized in June 2023, guarantees duty-free and quota-free access for goods originating in Kenya to the 27-member bloc, excluding weapons.

The EU is Kenya's most important export market and second-biggest trading partner.

In 2022, Kenya exported €1.2 billion ($1.31 billion) of mainly agricultural products to the EU, including tea, coffee, cut flowers, peas and beans. More than two-thirds, or 70%, of Kenya's total flower production is sold in the European market.

William Ruto shakes hands with Charles Michel as they stand in front of numerous flags
Kenyan President William Ruto (left), seen here with European Council President Charles Michel, visited Brussels in MarchImage: Virginia Mayo/AP Photo/picture alliance

As for Kenya, East Africa's largest economy will gradually and partially open its market to European goods, with the agreement seeing tariffs reduced over a 25-year period. Currently, Kenya mainly imports machinery as well as mineral and chemical products from the EU.

Kenya will be able to protect some so-called "sensitive products," either by excluding them from tariff cuts or by triggering safeguards in case of a sudden increase in imports from the EU.

The agreement comes as trade between the EU and Kenya is growing, increasing by 27% from 2018 to 2022.

The EPA is the latest broad trade deal between the EU and an African nation since the EU signed a similar agreement with Ghana in 2016.

What does the EPA mean for Kenya?

"It's a good time to have a deal that may help diversify Kenya's traded products and trading partners within the EU," said Sherillyn Raga, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, a global think tank.

The Netherlands, Germany and France are currently the leading destinations for EU imports.

The world has experienced multiple economic shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from Russia's war in Ukraine to climate change. "When your trade structure is very concentrated to a limited number of partners or a limited number of products, then you're very vulnerable to sharp global price movements," said Raga, a macroeconomics and trade specialist, adding that because of this, "trade diversification is one way to increase Kenya's resilience against shocks."

Grain desperately needed in Horn of Africa

For Kenya's exports to the EU, however, the deal won't change that much in the short term. Kenya already enjoys duty- and quota-free trade with the EU under a temporary special arrangement, which was put in place in 2014 after an agreement that the EU negotiated with the East African Community (EAC) stalled.

What the latest trade agreement does, first and foremost, is formally lock in Kenya's market access to the European Union, thereby "reducing uncertainty," said economist Frederik Stender, who works on trade policy and regional economic integration issues at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability.

This, in turn, could attract EU investment and financing in the medium to long term.

Notably, the EU trade agreement isn't just about trade. It also contains "a development perspective" for Kenya, Stender said. Kenya has agreed to enforce binding commitments related to environmental protection, climate action, fighting gender inequality and strengthening labor rights.

The agreement also includes trade-related development assistance to tackle some factors limiting Kenya's exports, such as lack of productive capacities, infrastructure, human capital and capacities to comply with EU standards, Stender said.

A man holds up a bag of red roses from a carton full of the flowers
The EU has strict rules around the importation of plant matterImage: Frank Rumpenhorst/dpa/picture alliance

Such elements will hopefully help Kenyan exporters overcome some of the difficulties they face in trading with the EU, and could eventually help Kenya integrate better into EU value chains.

A 2021 study of Kenya's export possibilities co-authored by Raga found that most of the barriers to entering the EU market are complying with the EU's labeling requirements, measures needed to control plant diseases and protect plant health, known as phytosanitary control, and rules of origin.

Why did Kenya make the EU deal without the East African Community?

In 2014, East African Community members Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda negotiated an Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union. But only Kenya went on to ratify the deal. Without the signatures of the other EAC members, which now include the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, the EU-EAC free-trade agreement couldn't come into effect.

The other EAC members felt less pressure to ratify the joint agreement because they already enjoy quota-free access to the EU as designated least developed countries. But as a lower middle-income economy, Kenya does not enjoy that provision.

In early 2021, EAC heads of state agreed to let those individual members who wish to implement the EU trade agreement negotiate directly with the European Union.

EAC members are all welcome to indvidually join the new trade agreement, President Ruto said at the December ceremony.

"This agreement that we are signing today leaves the door open, and I say, wide open, for our EAC partners to join," Ruto said.

In her remarks, the EU's von der Leyen also encouraged other Eastern African countries.

Kenyan khat farmers switching to sunflowers

What about Kenya's other trade deals?

The slow progress of regional integration in Africa is probably a reason Kenya has negotiated the EU trade deal and is looking to close others.

The African Continental Free Trade Area entered into force in 2019, and its operational phase began in 2021, but so far only a number of countries, including Kenya, have provisionally started to trade selected goods on a pilot basis.

Against this background, Kenya is seemingly looking for closer integration with other partners outside of Africa. 

Kenya signed a similar trade deal with the United Kingdom in December 2020, when Britain exited the EU.

The East African nation is also negotiating a trade deal with the United States, which could be signed next year. Kenya qualifies for duty-free access to the US market until 2025 under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. However, as with the EU, having a formal and permanent deal will likely attract more investment.

Kenya is also in talks with the United Arab Emirates, with the two nations signing in July 2022 an intent to begin negotiations on a comprehensive economic partnership agreement.

If an agreement is finalized, it would be the first bilateral trade deal the oil-rich Arab state has made with an African nation. As one of Kenya's most significant export partners, the UAE is regarded mainly as key to trade and investment with the Middle East. Kenya's main imports to the UAE are refined petroleum, tea, sheep and goat meat.

A man with a basket on his back bends over to pick tea
Kenya's tea-farming industry is the world's third-largest, after China and IndiaImage: Billy Mutai/AA/picture alliance

Trade between the two countries is currently marked by a massive trade imbalance favoring the UAE, which exported $1.8 billion to Kenya while only importing $328 million in products from Kenya.

Kenya has said it's keen to boost its non-oil trade with the UAE, such as Kenya's coconuts and potatoes, among other agricultural products.

"Kenya is doing its best to secure some deals so that it can expand its exports and diversify its export and trading partners," said Raga, adding that Kenya could set a precedent for other East African countries of what such trade deals could look like.

This article was originally published on June 20, 2023. It was updated on December 18 to reflect the official signing of the agreement.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.