ECONOMIC DIPLOMACY

Time for Kenya to move beyond tourism and agriculture — Swiss State Secretary

The Swiss know of Kenya’s tea and coffee, the wonderful safaris, but 'we hardly know of the vibrant start-up scene in this country', says Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch ahead of a visit by a trade mission

In Summary

• The economic impact of Swiss companies directly contributes to the priorities of the Kenyan government known as the Big Four agenda.

• The lively start-up scene in Kenya demonstrates that Kenyans are creative, and a lot of well-skilled young people are trying to give Kenya a new face; the so-called 'Silicon Savannah.'

Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch
Swiss State Secretary for Economic Affairs Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch
Image: COURTESY

State Secretary for Economic Affairs Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch is leading a Swiss trade mission in Kenya and will meet various sector leaders, entrepreneurs and start-ups for two days. She spoke to the Star about her delegation's mission.

The President of the Swiss Confederation Alain Berset visited Kenya last year. Is this mission a follow-up of that historic visit?

 

The visit of the President of the Swiss Confederation to Kenya last year shows the high level of relations between our countries. Visits of that importance create opportunities to strengthen our bilateral relations. I am happy to say that presidents Alain Berset and Uhuru Kenyatta put a special emphasis on taking our economic ties to a new level. Therefore, this economic mission under my leadership as the State Secretary for Economic Affairs, is a direct follow-up of last year’s presidential visit.

 

I would also like to mention another important result of that visit: The two countries enhanced their long-lasting cooperation in the fight against corruption by signing a Framework Agreement for the Return of Assets from Corruption and Crime in Kenya.

Switzerland has had a decades-long presence here in Kenya. What would you say is the key economic impact of Switzerland in Kenya?

The economic impact of Swiss companies directly contributes to the priorities of the Kenyan government, known as the Big Four agenda.

For example, in health, the two largest Swiss pharmaceutical companies, Novartis and Roche, have been present in Kenya for a long time, offering innovative medicines and diagnostic solutions to the Kenyan people. New investments have also been made in research.

In manufacturing, we have companies such as ABB, a leading energy and automation company, and in the IT sector, the publishing company Ringier is an important digital publisher in Kenya. I am proud to see that the young Swiss business leaders have founded new companies in Kenya with great social and ecological impact, like “Mr Green Africa,” a plastic recycling plant.

 

In housing, Bamburi Cement, one of the largest cement manufacturing companies in Kenya, is owned by the Swiss firm LafargeHolcim. Furthermore, the Swiss company Sika offers building-applied chemicals.

In food security, SGS (Société Générale de Surveillance) and Cotecna do quality control to ensure that import or export goods to and from Kenya meet the required standards. Nestlé has been in Kenya for a long time. There is Bühler, a Swiss manufacturer of milling equipment, who established and run the “African Milling School” here in Nairobi, where young people are trained in advanced methods of grain milling and combat, for example, Aflatoxin in maize, a very harmful substance to health.

 

In addition to the above, the following companies are also part of the delegation: African Solar Generation, Bank Julius Baer & Co Ltd, Control Risks Switzerland, Glosya Holding SA, Laufen bathrooms, Mantar GmbH, SICPA and Swiss Re.

You are leading a big Swiss business delegation to Kenya. What goals do you have in mind for this trip? And why now?

Why now? Well, it is Africa’s moment to grow and prosper. Switzerland wants to be part of that journey.

Kenya, in particular, is a regional hub with well-trained and hardworking young people. They have a sense for innovation, which makes Kenya an attractive partner with big potential.

In Switzerland, we know of Kenya’s tea and coffee, the wonderful safaris, but we hardly know of the vibrant start-up scene in this country. Kenya is very advanced in new technologies, for example, in the field of money transfer (M-Pesa). Switzerland is investing in finance technology, too. Therefore, I can see potential synergies here.

It is a good feeling to lead this important business delegation, which underlines the interest of Swiss private companies in further investing and creating jobs in Kenya. I see my role as State Secretary for Economic Affairs as a door opener for these companies, especially when it comes to our contacts with the government.

What expertise is the business delegation bringing to Kenya, and which types of businesses/start-ups are they looking to interact with?

I am looking forward to interacting with the start-ups in information technology and specifically finance technology. The lively start-up scene in Kenya demonstrates that Kenyans are creative, and a lot of well-skilled, young people are trying to give Kenya a new face; the so-called “Silicon Savannah”. I am curious to see Kenya’s “Silicon Savannah” — I have already visited the Masai Mara years back on a private trip to Kenya. That, too, is a very valuable savannah, but I believe there is a consensus among economists that the time has come for Kenya to move beyond tourism and agriculture. We are coming to Kenya in the hope of being part of that process.

Kenya's exports to Switzerland are almost exclusively agricultural products, and Swiss exports to Kenya are mainly pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Whereas these are important sectors for the two countries, is your mission looking at diversifying areas of investment and trade, and if yes, which are these sectors?

Our economic footprint here is already quite diversified. But yes, we are looking to diversify our investments further, which proves the composition of my trade delegation.

In June this year, the Kenya Airways direct flight to Geneva was launched, just weeks after the appointment of a Kenyan Ambassador to Bern. How have these developments, if at all, promoted trade and business between the two countries so far?

The direct flight has the potential to promote trade and tourism between the two countries. The flight has eased transportation between Kenya and Switzerland. Our two UN headquarters — Geneva and Nairobi — are now directly connected. Furthermore, the flight has put Kenya in the limelight even more, as a potential business partner, since more businesses, like those which are part of this economic delegation, are now coming to Kenya to explore potential areas of investment and trade.

In regard to tourism, more people are putting Kenya in their holiday plans and vice versa, since it is now easier to travel between the two countries. Let’s not forget that Swiss International Air Lines also connect Zürich and Nairobi with a daily direct flight, with a stopover in Dar es Salaam on its way back.

When it comes to the establishment of a Kenyan embassy in Bern, there again, last year’s presidential visit paved the way. It was on that occasion that President [Uhuru] Kenyatta announced the decision to establish a Kenyan embassy. Since then, a lot has happened: The Kenyan government has nominated an Ambassador to Switzerland and the Swiss government has given its Agrément. Both sides are ready to open the Kenyan Embassy in Bern!

I am looking forward to meeting the new Kenyan ambassador in my office soon. Indeed, his physical presence in Switzerland will be good for our trade relations. He will be able to meet our Swiss companies and promote Kenya as an investment destination.

Kenya faces a very severe unemployment problem. Some refer to it as a ticking time bomb. What can Kenya do to encourage greater investments from Swiss companies, which would create new jobs?

Of course, it’s a challenge. But we shouldn’t see the large number of Kenyan youths as a ticking time bomb. We should see them as an economic opportunity. A large young population generates more consumers and a potentially numerous labour force, which, if properly trained, will be able to participate in the global economy, through well-paid jobs and successful businesses.

What is needed to harness this opportunity of a young population? Four key elements are at the basis of Switzerland’s economic success: First, we are guided by the rule of law and enjoy low corruption levels. Second, we invest consistently in education and technical training (vocational training). Third, we have an open and competitive market that is interlinked with the world market, as well as an open labour market. Competition stimulates growth.

Last but not least, Switzerland has a strategic location in the heart of Europe, much like Kenya, a finance, trade, transport and logistics hub, and as such the natural entry point for anyone wishing to do business in Eastern and Central Africa — a region with over 500 million people.

Therefore, it is critical that the Kenyan government continues on the path of the rule of law, in particular by fighting corruption. Switzerland partners with Kenya in the fight against corruption.

Furthermore, Switzerland, as a European Free Trade Association member state, works on the goal to sign a Joint Declaration on Cooperation between the EFTA and the East African Community, which Kenya is a part of. Such a declaration would foster the institutionalisation of a structured dialogue on trade matters, and, therefore, further fortify the economic ties between our two countries.

Switzerland is globally regarded as a benchmark for devolved government. In your view, is devolution one of the reasons why Switzerland is such a rich country?

I am convinced that federalism or a devolved system has some important advantages: Adopting rules close to the necessities of the people makes the people accept and respect the rules. They feel a strong sense of “ownership”, as we say these days. Practical solutions can be found close to and for the people.