We mentioned several times that Kenya has a huge problem with its current account deficit (the country’s imports are way larger than its exports) and this was one of the main causes of last year’s massive depreciation of the Kenyan Shilling. What can Kenya do about it?

Wolfgang Fengler suggests a three-pronged strategy: a) Increase exports b) Encourage long-term capital inflows c) Get a share of China’s manufacturing jobs (over the next decade)

In order to balance its current account, Kenya would have to more than double the volume of its three top exports—tea, tourism and horticulture. In addition, Kenya is vulnerable to shocks, like increasing oil prices.  Oil is one of Kenya’s top imports, and the oil import bill alone rose from $2.7 billion in 2010 to $4.1 billion in 2011, further weakening Kenya’s fragile current account.  A large current account deficit does not automatically translate into a falling currency, so long as capital inflows fill the gap. But in Kenya, capital inflows have increasingly been short-term (by contrast to Foreign Direct Investment which finances factories and offices). Short-term capital can leave a country as fast as it comes, and this uncertainty is an additional source of fragility for the national currency. [..]

Kenya’s first engine—domestic consumption—which is fuelling vibrant service and construction sectors, has always been strong. But the second engine—exports—needs to perform better. If not, Kenya will continue to operate below potential, for years to come.

What products could Kenya realistically export? Picking winners is typically not a good idea. The government needs to provide the conditions—such as infrastructure, the rule of law, and basic social services—for businesses to thrive, but not run them. At the same time, it is clear that Kenya needs to move into new products, because it cannot grow rich on tea and flowers alone. The natural starting point is manufacturing.Kenya has a good location and a skilled labor force, which is rapidly urbanizing. The global manufacturing market is also changing. Today, Asia is the world’s workshop, producing almost everything from clothes, shoes, toys and increasingly cars. But Asia’s economic success translates into higher wages, and many manufacturing jobs will soon leave its emerging economies. The World Bank projects that 85 million manufacturing jobs will leave China over the next decade. Where will these jobs go? Can Kenya get a share?

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