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The East African Integration: Achievements and Challenges

August 2012

Makame, A. 2012. The East African integration: Achievement and challenges. GREAT Insights, Volume 1, Issue 6. August 2012. Maastricht: ECDPM.

The formation of the East African Community (EAC) in 1999 by the United Republic of Tanzania, the Republic of Kenya and the Republic of Uganda was the achievement of the trio’s cooperation since the collapse of the original EAC in 1977. 

The enthusiasm of the EAC to facilitate trade among its members is enshrined in Article 5 (2) of the Treaty establishing the East African Community which states that the first stage of EAC integration will be the formation of a Customs Union, skipping the earlier stages of Preferential Trade Area and Free Trade Area. The EAC Customs Union Protocol came into force in January 2005. The Customs Union has four major elements: (1) the establishment of a Common External Tariff (CET); (2) the establishment of EAC Rules of Origin (RoO) criteria, including Certificates of Origin and Simplified Certificates of Origin; (3) the internal elimination of tariffs for goods meeting the EAC RoO criteria and (4) the elimination of Non Tariff Barriers (NTBs). The primary objective of the Protocol establishing the Customs Union is to facilitate inter and intra regional trade in goods. The Treaty establishing the East African Community then names as subsequent stages of EAC integration the establishment of a Common Market, then a Monetary Union and ultimately a Political Federation.

Achievements of the East African Community

The strides taken by the EAC to have a Customs Union Protocol in force and a Community Law – the Customs Management Act — made it attractive to other countries such Rwanda and Burundi to accede the Treaty in 2006. The latter two countries became fully fledged members of the EAC in July 2007, and started to implement the Customs Union in 2009. The Republic of Southern Sudan has applied to join the EAC and the process of evaluating her admission is ongoing. Currently the EAC is recognized globally and representatives from various countries and international organisations have submitted their credentials to the Secretary General of the East African Community. There are other countries envying to join the regional bloc, as the Summit of EAC Heads of State and Government have said in their 2011 Communiqué. The region has increased both inter- and intra-regional trade, and has also witnessed an increase in intra-EAC Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) as well as in FDI from outside. The East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) has passed several community laws and the Council of Ministers has established various Sectoral Councils to oversee policy issues in the regional integration progress. There -is mutual recognition of standards marks across the region where the bureaus of standards have developed an EAC catalogue of Standards. In pursuit of facilitating trade the EAC has embarked on a mission to establish One Stop Border Posts that have already been articulated within the auspices of the Community Law. Finally, the EAC Council of Ministers has recently approved the ‘EAC Customs Valuation Manual’ – a document which provides guidelines on how to implement and uniformely interpret EAC Customs valuation provisions within the Community and therefore helps overcome challenges in this respect

Challenges in implementing the EAC Customs Union

Despite these progress made throughout the years, some challenges remain noteworthy when it comes to the implementation of the EAC Customs Union. 

Implementing the CET has been challenging to the Partner States. Customs valuation procedures have been varying, resulting in different computed values for taxation. Since 2005, Uganda has produced a list of industrial products that are exempted from the CET. A similar list of industrial inputs is in place for Rwanda and Burundi. Moreover, the United Republic of Tanzania, as a member of both the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the EAC, has taken integration commitments in both regional contexts, thereby having to implement two CET, one being for EAC and the other for SADC. Likewise, the remaining four –members of the EAC are also members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), thus facing similar challenges as the one encountered by Tanzania in terms of multiple commitments taken in the contexts of various integration agenda. 

Rules of origin implementation has been largely successful in the region, except for a number of challenges where disputes have arisen and verification missions were constituted to address the problems. In the wheat industry, we have for instance observed protectionist tendencies which have been justified using rules of origin-related arguments. Moreover, efforts in sensitisation/awareness-raising seem to have been too limited to allow relevant stakeholders realize the opportunities they could draw from EAC integration. 

Internal Tariff Elimination is an area where the EAC Partner States have scored one hundred percent in implementation, and it is our anticipation that this achievement will be a yardstick to influence the others.

The EAC has undergone great efforts to eliminate Non-Tariff Barriers. Similar efforts have been undertaken at the SADC and COMESA levels, where national and regional structures to monitor and curb NTBs are in place; and have attracted a genuine cooperation between the public and private sectors. There are however a number of NTBs remaining in the EAC as well as in COMESA and SADC: while some have been eliminated, others are mushrooming up. 

The EAC is yet to have a Single Customs Territory despite having the protocol in place. Other notable challenges include challenges emanating from Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and Export Processing Zones (EPZs) regimes as well as those of Investments Promotion Authorities; the delayed adoption of the EAC Industrialisation Policy and Strategy, and the long overdue EAC Sanitary Phytosanitary (SPS) Protocol.

Other developments and challenges: looking beyond the Customs Union

The EAC seems to be the most vibrant Regional Economic Community (REC) in the Southern hemisphere and is tremendously advancing in its integration process: however, crucial issues remains to be addressed.


Despite the challenges encountered in implementing the first stage of integration, i.e the EAC Customs Union, the EAC moved on and entered into a Common Market in 2010, after completing the negotiations in 2009. The Common Market Protocol calls for liberalisation of the labour market, capital market and services market, as the goods market has already been liberalised by the Customs Union Protocol. As I am writing this article, implementation of the Common Market in EAC has however not gone beyond the signing and ratification of the Protocol. There are several national laws that have to be amended so that they are compatible with the Common Market; no single law has been amended by any Partner State so far.

Despite these challenges, the completion of the Common Market negotiations made the EAC proceed forward with the negotiations of the third stage of EAC integration, i.e the negotiations of the Monetary Union. Both policy-makers and experts seem to have nontechnical reasoning at this stage: the Customs Union has not been fully implemented, the Common Market has not gone beyond ratification; and yet, now comes the negotiations of the Monetary Union. The negotiators have maintained their guts on the negotiating timeframe, and have ignored the economic turbulence facing the Euro Zone’s austerity measures and the macroeconomic convergence. As much as EAC can venture in numerous fronts, this one seems to be rather premature.


The EPA Negotiations are taking twists and turns and at some stage we get convinced that the EAC is not sure what it wants in EPA and how it can achieve it. 

EAC – SADC – COMESA Tripartite Grand Free Trade Area

Another development to pay attention to is the potential EAC – SADC – COMESA Tripartite Grand Free Trade Area. Given the situation on the ground in terms of EAC integration and the way the REC is engaging on numerous fronts, it is very likely that we can get to the level of signing the Tripartite Grand Free Trade Agreement and still have basic outstanding issues that need to be solved. Our main appeal to the Secretariats of COMESA, EAC and SADC as well as to individual Partner States is to conduct a self evaluation exercise. It is important that we implement the Abuja Declaration and progress in the regional integration agenda. But there is a great need of connecting the regional and national players so that the regional commitments get implemented nationally. The poor state of infrastructure and energy also remain a challenge to a great number of African countries, making intra-African trade very expensive.

Opportunities and challenges for Tanzania in the EAC

Tanzania is the largest country in the EAC, it borders all the EAC Partner States and has vast areas of arable land that can be used as a food basket to the other EAC countries as well as beyond EAC. It has a large coastal strip that is endowed with natural harbours. The country is rich in natural resources including wildlife and has many tourism attraction sites. It has recorded political stability since its independence in 1961. Likewise, it is worth noting that the headquarters of the EAC are located in Arusha, Tanzania. These are so many attributes that can be considered clear advantages for Tanzania to play a critical role in the EAC and beyond, if a strategic roadmap was to be crafted in Tanzania. 

Most Tanzanians however lack awareness of the regional integration process and cannot as such articulate the benefits that can be drawn from the EAC integration process. Moreover, like many African countries, the country has inadequate and poor infrastructures that prevent it to tap the opportunities at hand. Besides, the people, including within the private sector, are not very entrepreneurial as they tend to over-rely on the government; this may be labelled as ‘hangover of ujamaa’ – the socialist political system that was in place in the country for over three decades after independence. Issues of red tape and corruption have been in the headlines, especially in important areas such as power generation and supply – challenges that make the cost of doing business high. Finally, the most displeasing behaviour of Tanzania in the regional integration is the Food Export Ban ; this does not only portray the country as an untrustworthy partner to fellow EAC Partner States, but it also demoralizes farmers who are forced to store their produces and face losses where they have no appropriate storage facilities. It also encourages cross-border informal trade, thereby denying the government revenues and statistics.

Abdullah H. Makame (PhD) is an Assistant Director at the Ministry of East African Cooperation in the United Republic of Tanzania and a Lecturer at the Institute of Finance Management. Views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of ECDPM or employers of the author.

This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 1, Issue 6 (August 2012).

Economic Transformation and TradeCommon Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA)East African Community (EAC)Regional Economic Communities (RECs)Southern African Development Community (SADC)TradeEast AfricaTanzania

Process to approval of the COMESA biotechnology and biosafety policy

In the years 2001 and 2002, countries in Southern Africa struggled with a severe drought where more than 15 million people faced starvation (Omamo and von Grebmer, 2005; Paarlberg, 2008a,b). This was not the first time this was happening. A similar situation happened in 1991 “as a result of poor weather, policy failures, and market failures” (Omamo and von Grebmer, 2005) Considering that most of the maize food aid would come from countries that had approved commercialization of GMOs, the debate on the safety of GM based food to humans and the environment surfaced. The reactions in 2002 were drastic. Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Malawi took policy decisions that limited the import of food aid with GM content (Paarlberg, 2008a). They placed various restrictions on imports of un-milled GM yellow maize from the World Food Program, and Zambia refused all GM maize even if milled. Only Swaziland continued to accept un-milled GM maize without restriction as food aid through the World Food Program. These developments seem to have triggered action from the regional economic blocs. A meeting of the Southern African Development Community council of Ministers for Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources in July 2002 in Maputo, Mozambique noted, “the lack of a harmonized position on GMOs was creating serious operational problems in movement of food and non-food items” (Omamo and von Grebmer, 2005). The COMESA Council of Ministers meeting on November 29, 2002 in Lusaka Zambia endorsed the recommendation of the meeting of Ministers of Agriculture on November 4, 2002 in Kampala, Uganda, that “COMESA should develop a common position on GMO’s and other products of biotechnology” [COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) (2002)]. This led to the development of the Project on Regional Approach to Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy in Eastern and Southern Africa (RABESA). In part, RABESA was to inform and support the move toward improved regional policy coordination (Wafula and Waithaka, 2006).

During the first phase of the RABESA project (2004–2007), studies were commissioned to analyze: (i) potential farm-income gains from the adoption of GM crops; (ii) the magnitude of commercial export risks associated with GM crops; and (iii) the impacts of delivery of emergency food aid with GM content in the COMESA region. The research findings were disseminated and discussed at national consultative meetings in COMESA Member States.

The study on farm-income gains projected that COMESA Member States could harness substantial benefits from the adoption of GM insect-resistant varieties of cotton and maize (Mbwika, 2006). The second study showed that use of Bt cotton for commercial planting might save cotton in developing countries from bollworm damage and provide farmers with higher levels of income (Paarlberg et al., 2006b). The control of bollworms is done through application of pesticides, which is a costly exercise in terms of the cost of pesticides, spray equipment, and labor (Mbwika, 2006).

With respect to trade-related implications of adopting GMOs in the COMESA region, the main conclusion was that inter-regional export losses associated with the adoption of GM crops in the COMESA region were negligible (Paarlberg et al., 2006a). Although COMESA countries depend heavily on the export of agricultural products to earn foreign exchange, the major exports were coffee, tea, sugar, horticulture, banana, and pyrethrum. None of these crops had been commercialized anywhere in GM form, meaning that there would be little or no GMO associated risk to agricultural export incomes (Paarlberg et al., 2006a). The food aid import policies study revealed that sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) was the largest recipient of emergency food aid globally, and COMESA countries received 85% of all emergency food aid to SSA. About 50% of the food aid arrives as donations from countries that are leading producers of GM crops, including USA and Canada (Paarlberg et al., 2006b).

These findings were presented in a regional workshop that brought together 40 key stakeholders from COMESA Member States that was held in Nairobi in 2006 (Wafula and Waithaka, 2006). The workshop considered the three policy harmonization options with respect to commercial planting of GMOs; commercial trade policy in GM products; and policy on access to emergency food aid with GM content. This was in line with the aspirations of the African Union conference of agriculture ministers in the same year, which recommended that the continental body set up mechanisms to identify commonalities and coordinate policies on biosafety and biotechnology [AU (African Union) (2006)]. With respect to commercial planting of GM crops the recommendation of the workshop was for countries to adopt a centralized regional assessment and national-level decision-making. The advantages of this approach were that it was standardized, transparent, cost–effective, and allowed sharing of resources, information, and expertise. The recommendation on commercial trade policy in GM products was for countries to get advice/information from a central regional clearing house, and retain decision-making at the national level. The advantages of this approach were the cost-effectiveness of regional-level assessment, cooperation in assessing trade issues, and sharing of information and capacities. The recommendation on access to emergency food aid with GM content was to have guidelines developed at regional level and national-level decision-making on a case-by-case basis. The advantages of this approach were that it would facilitate transit of food aid; facilitate provision of relief food, as well as timely humanitarian response.

These recommendations were presented, discussed, and endorsed at the fourth meeting of the COMESA Ministers of Agriculture held in Khartoum, Sudan, in March 2007 [COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) (2007)]. The second phase of RABESA kicked off in 2008 with two additional partners. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications and the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (a specialized Agency of COMESA). In response to the Ministerial directives, the RABESA team initiated the drafting of COMESA Regional Biosafety Policies and Guidelines in the three priority areas: commercial planting of GMOs, trade in GM products, and handling of emergency food aid with GM content. A biosafety roadmap and a communication strategy were also drafted to support the harmonization process. These documents were presented and discussed at regional and national consultative meetings to obtain feedback from Member States. The draft policies and guidelines were presented and discussed in a regional workshop that was held in April 2010 in Nairobi, Kenya.

The recommendations from the regional workshop were presented in the third Joint meeting of the COMESA Ministers of Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources that was held in July 2010, in Lusaka, Zambia. The Ministers endorsed the biosafety roadmap and a communication strategy. They decided that the draft policies be subjected to further national consultative processes for wider ownership before they are considered by the COMESA policy organs. Following this decision, national consultative workshops were held in the COMESA countries between September 2010 and September 2011. Participants in the workshops were key stakeholders drawn from diverse institutions including ministries of agriculture, trade, environment, national biosafety focal points, biosafety competent authorities, seed traders, millers, the media, food relief agencies, the industry, civil society, competent authorities, and politicians/opinion leaders. A final regional validation workshop that brought together 40 participants, drawn from 15 out of the 19 Member States was held in May 2012 in Lusaka, Zambia. The participants endorsed the policies and recommended that they be combined into one.

The validated regional biotechnology and biosafety policy was presented, discussed, and approved at the fifth joint meeting of the Ministers of Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources that was held on 20th September 2013 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia [COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) (2014a)]. The policy was formally adopted by the 32nd meeting of COMESA Council of Ministers that was held on 24th February 2014, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. The COMESA biotechnology and biosafety policy is the first at the global level, coordinated mechanism for handling biosafety issues related to GMOs use at the regional level. The long and unwinding journey from the start of the RABESA project to the approval of the biosafety policy is depicted in Figure ​1.

Figure 1

Long road to the approval of the regional biosafety policy.

Two challenges stood in the way to the development of the COMESA biosafety policy. The first was that most COMESA Member States did not have functional national biosafety frameworks. Second, countries in Southern Africa had already challenged GM technology when they declined to receive food aid imports even when many people were faced with starvation. To date, these effects of these challenges are still being felt. In such a situation, then one would expect countries to have been anxious over talks of a regional policy, fearing that they would be ceding their sovereignty in decision-making at the national level. It is not surprising that concerns over sovereignty often threatened to derail the development of the regional policy. This was taken into consideration and the principle of national sovereignty is recognized as the cornerstone of the COMESA Policy.

Concerns over safety and long-term impacts of GM technologies still persist. For a start, the RABESA project generated evidence on potential impacts at farm level, on trade and with respect to food aid (Paarlberg et al., 2006a,b,c). Of the three areas, of study, the threat of losing export markets in major destinations, such as Europe, was a paramount issue in blocking adoption of GM crop. This debate continues to date despite evidence from several studies that have indicated that the magnitudes of risk are negligible. This is mainly because COMESA countries do not export to Europe any commodities that are currently available in GM form.

An unforeseen challenge occurred at the COMESA level. Prior to the year 2009, the Ministries of Agriculture handled all agricultural discussions. In 2009, the sittings of Ministries of Agriculture and those of the Ministries of Natural Resources and Environment were combined into what was thereafter referred to as joint Ministerial meetings. This was welcomed in that it implied that environmental concerns would also be considered alongside agricultural issues. The downside was that this slowed down the process for the biosafety policy because it necessitated more consultations with experts from the environment department who were hitherto not part of the GM debate.

When the second phase of RABESA started, it became imperative to have more consultations with the COMESA secretariat. This proved to be challenge and led to delays in getting some decisions made. This was overcome when the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (ACTESA), specialized agency of COMESA, was assigned to lead the COMESA Biotechnology program in 2009. This shortened consultations and decision-making and speeded-up the progress thereafter.

Opportunities in the implementation of the COMESA biotechnology and biosafety policy

The crops for which biotech/GM commodity products are available, within the COMESA region are banana, cassava, sorghum, sweet potato and cotton. Those that are available outside the region are maize, soybean, cowpea and rice. These crops are relevant and important in terms of food security and agri-business development in the COMESA region. Their products can find their way into the region through adoption for cultivation, formal and informal trade, and food-aid assistance. In the short-run, this can complicate the regulatory process within countries. In the long run, without a collective regional approach, it is possible that the GM factor may rise to the level of trade disruption between/among Member States as a result of different policies (Belay et al., 2014). Therefore, focusing on uncompromised region-wide biosafety risk-assessment instruments that are complementary to national-level systems is important. The idea is straightforward; without infringing on national-level decisions, for a given GM-event, if one country conducts the risk-assessment properly it should not necessarily be repeated in all the Member States. Given that both biotech product testing and regulatory requirements are scientific-knowledge and resource intensive, a regional-level biosafety risk-assessment system will help in pooling scarce resources.

The novelty of a regional approach to biosafety considerations calls for concerted efforts among key partners to ensure success. Sustained political support is key in embracing and operationalizing the regional biosafety policies. This can be achieved through continuous generation of evidence-based data for informed decision-making and implementation of a focused communication and outreach strategy. Capacity building will be a major requirement in ensuring that all countries have functional biosafety systems in place while standard operating procedures and structures for implementing the policy will have to be instituted.

Most COMESA member countries have embarked on the development of national biosafety policies, laws and regulations. While a few countries have progressed to more advanced stages of developing functional biosafety systems, the majority are still at the initial stages of development. Countries will be encouraged to make use of the COMESA biosafety road map as they develop and strength their national biosafety frameworks. This will ensure complementarity and the desired interface with the regional biosafety decision-making arrangements.

In the long term, a regional approach to biosafety is expected to foster inter-country cooperation through the sharing of knowledge, expertise, experiences and resources. The COMESA biosafety implementation plan will guide implementation of the COMESA policy across the region. It will be the first initiative of the COMESA long-term program on biotechnology and biosafety.

Conclusion and lesson learnt

The pivotal provisions included in the COMESA biosafety policy are as follows: (a) collective recognition of both the benefits and potential risks associated with GMOs in a case-by-case approach; (b) a regional-level and science-based biosafety risk-assessment mechanism, coupled with national-level decision-making; and (c) capacity building. The regional biosafety policy stands for sharing of information, resources, and expertise, and reducing redundancies and cost of biosafety regulations. The processes of its formulation and approval underwent intensive consultations with key stakeholders in an inclusive, participatory, and interactive manner.

There have been important lessons learnt during the policy formulation process that are still relevant when venturing into the implementation of the policy. Key among these are that biotechnology/biosafety issues of regional harmonization should be handled in a consultative, participatory, and inclusive manner. This is because given the controversies that surround the technology, the process of policy formulation was as important as the policy framework itself. Deliberations cutting across the entire life cycle of the RABESA project took place in 24 national and 4 regional workshops.

Regional harmonization of biosafety policies is both a technical and political process. It requires strong political will and commitment at various levels within Member States. The progress made and political-buy in realized so far could be attributed to the fact that the RABESA project has been a recurrent agenda item in various COMESA policy organ meetings. This reflects the good will that COMESA’s highest levels maintained.

National sovereignty is a fundamental and sensitive issue. The convergence and divergence between national and regional frameworks had to be clearly spelled out. The pertinent concerns need to be handled carefully to dispel fears that the regional process may infringe on, or override national interests and decision-making powers.

A policy on its own is insufficient to deliver desired changes to a society unless it is implemented. Awareness and outreach efforts need to be stepped up in order for countries to appropriate the benefits of a regional approach in biosafety decision-making. This necessitates the need for a focused and demand-driven communication strategy and implementation plan to ensure that credible evidence is delivered to target audiences in the formats best suited for them.


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