Why ‘Blue Economy’ matters to Africa

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In Kenya, the big economic talk is about something called “Blue Economy” conference that started in Nairobi yesterday.

The term “Blue Economy” sounds exotic, elitist, and maybe romantic in part because so many foreign dignitaries will show up. Does it mean “blue colour jobs”, as TV commentator and former magistrate Joy Mdivo, would argue? Or is it, as a wit put it, many people talking about fish and water and then giving it a big name?

There is limited validity in both observations in that participants will talk about harnessing fish in oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers and that many “blue colour jobs” can arise from implementing suggestions about “blue economy”.

The participants, involving at least 11 heads of state and government and other interested representatives will discuss more than water and fish.

They will talk of security to ward off global piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, South China Sea, Singapore Strait, the Caribbean Sea, Malacca Strait, Nigeria, Indonesia, Benin, Gulf of Aden, Bay of Bengal, Java Sea, Arabian Sea, North Yellow Sea, Celebes Sea, and along the Somali coast.

The handling of piracy money and its dislocating effect to the national and regional economies should receive serious attention.

So far, strong maritime powers have failed to coordinate anti-piracy operations.

They instead, compete with each other on the acquisition of strategic posts.

Piracy is only a small part of the challenges confronting countries like Kenya whose maritime security is inchoate because it previously had not taken the issue seriously.

A few people like Wambua Musila had made maritime security a topic of discussions.

Back in January 2011 and May 2013, I raised the issue in newspaper columns pointing to the need to do something about sea thieves and predators at the East African coast.

This was because countries without serious maritime security lose a lot of their sea resources to big sea powers who simply ignore weak states.

It seemingly took, General Samson Mwathathe as Chief of Kenya Defence Forces, to internalise the issue and push for the establishment of the Coast Guard with enough reach in the deep sea.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has been busy selling his Big 4 dream. An elaborate and effective maritime security undertaking neatly plugs into the Big 4 in a cyclical way.

It means jobs arising from providing houses for the sailors who protect fish and fish is good food which means additional jobs.

There is the challenge of who controls the natural resources at sea which in turn inspires attempts to monopolise by denying access. Part of the common global power play is to deny potential rivals access to particular strategic resources, in this case at sea.

Huge quantities of such natural resources as oil and gas in the sea, therefore, inspire strange geopolitical reconfigurations.

After fragmented Somalia gave prospecting oil and gas concessions to companies from powerful countries, for instance, it seemingly gained enough ability to adjust its map of the Kenya-Somali border in such a way as to claim the resources in Kenyan waters.

The intent was to deny Kenya access to its own natural resources at sea while giving them to extra-continental interests. Discussions about maritime borders should feature prominently in the conference.

There is also concern about the effect of environmental pollution on the Blue Economy.

There are mountains of plastic garbage that endanger marine life. Sea animals die of eating plastic garbage or being trapped in them.

In April, for instance, a whale died after eating 64 pounds of plastic garbage in the Spanish coast. In September, a whale died mysteriously in the Indian Ocean and then showed up in Kwale.

Some discussions in the conference have to deal with who controls the sea trade and the jobs to be accrued.

Mombasa, a big transit port currently enhanced by the Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway, is part of the global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

With no doubt it will transform regional security and economies from Kenya on the Indian Ocean side to Cameroon on the Atlantic Ocean side, the SGR is linked to BRI whose two terminal points, whether by land or sea, are Dutch Rotterdam and Chinese Shanghai.

For the Blue Economy Conference to make sense to many Kenyans, it should translate to visible Blue Colour jobs derived out of fish and water to keep Jua Kali people busy.

Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU-Africa, Nairobi, Kenya.–herald.co.zw

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