Beyond tourism, Thailand a major trade ally for Kenya

The Asian nation’s main exports to Kenya include auto parts, rubber products, agriculture and chemical products

In Summary

• Many Kenyans only know the Asian nation as a world-famous tourism destination

• Thai Ambassador Sasirit Tangulrat says there are more opportunities to be explored

Thailand Ambassador Sasirit Tangulrat during an interview with the Star at the Royal Thai Embassy office on July 5
Thailand Ambassador Sasirit Tangulrat during an interview with the Star at the Royal Thai Embassy office on July 5

Bangkok was in 2019 ranked the number-one tourist destination, surpassing Paris and London in Mastercard's list of "Global Destination Cities Index 2019", with 22.78 million visitors.

Known worldwide for its charming locals, majestic limestone cliffs and picture-postcard beaches and coastlines, Kenyans might know Thailand only as a tourism destination.

However, Thailand Ambassador to Kenya Sasirit Tangulrat sees this as a missed opportunity to expand on bilateral ties.

Thailand, for instance, is a leading food exporter. It is the number one exporter of canned tuna and canned pineapple, top five in shrimp and seafood export, and top three in rice production and export. And this is where Ambassador Tangulrat wants to focus.

In an interview with the Star at the embassy in Nairobi, she said her priority is the promotion of trade and investment, technical cooperation, public health, as well as tourism, all of which she believes can contribute to Kenya’s Big Four agenda.

“Before the Covid-19 pandemic, our bilateral trade raised approximately $250 million, but due to the pandemic, our balance of trade has decreased to approximately $150 million," Tangulrat, who has been in Kenya for eight months, said.

"However, there is a sign of recovery because from the beginning of this year until now, our bilateral trade has bounced back. It expanded to be plus-45 per cent, from minus-45 per cent during the same period of last year. This is a good sign.” 

Thailand’s main export products to Kenya include auto parts, rubber products, agriculture and chemical products. Its top imports from Kenya are gems and jewellery, vegetables and food, tea and coffee, and chemical products.

In terms of investment, Thai businesses in hospitality have invested in Kenya. One is dusitD2, which unfortunately closed due to Covid-19.

But there is another chain by Manor Group, which has set up more than 10 camps in Kenya - Maasai Mara, in Amboseli, Meru National Park and Diani, among others. 

"Hospitality is one area that Thailand is strong and has expertise in. As tourism is also a driving force for Kenya’s economy, I’d really wish to see more investment from Thailand in this sector,” she said.

Asked whether dusisD2 would reopen, the envoy said she is yet to meet with the CEO of the hotel but has requested a meeting with him to discuss how the embassy can support the business.

The Star: Kenya and Thailand have had many years of bilateral engagements. However, these relations are not quite visible. Why is that?

Amb Tangulrat: I think the main contributing factor is the distance between the two countries. The important thing is the people-to-people relations, the understanding between people of both sides. It is the key thing and our homework is to strengthen it.

I feel there might be some gap between the two peoples. There is a lot of potential in trade and investment, and this is what the emphasis is.

We regard Kenya as our strategic partner in East Africa and it remains our largest trading partner for many consecutive years. I believe there is much room for us to expand our cooperation.

How then can the two states promote people-to-people engagements?

Before the pandemic started, the embassy had organised many trade delegations from Thailand to Kenya, as well as a business delegation from Kenya to Thailand to explore trade and investment opportunities. We couldn't do so after the pandemic outbreak.

We will, instead, organise a webinar for the Thai private sector to provide them with useful information about trade and investment opportunities in Kenya next month.

I have talked with KenInvest [Kenya Investment Authority], who will provide information about investment incentives for the private sector.

I think this kind of activity can help fill the gap between our two people. Furthermore, next year, we will mark our 55th anniversary of diplomatic relations, and we plan to organise many events to promote other relations, particularly among our people.

We will plan cultural performances, film and food festivals, a lecture about Thailand and Kenya relations at some leading university in Kenya. I believe these kinds of activities can build and promote our relations and definitely strengthen cooperation in other areas.

In 2013, Thailand launched the Thai-Africa Initiative. What is the aim and progress with regards to Kenya?

We initiated this policy to deeply engage with Africa. Thereafter, we realised bilateral and regional cooperation might be more appropriate. This engagement is still top of our agenda. 

We have seven embassies in Africa. In the south, we have an embassy in South Africa and Mozambique. In the eastern part, in Kenya. In the West, in Nigeria and Senegal. And up north, we have an embassy in Egypt and Morocco.

For our embassy in Nairobi, we cover 10 countries in Eastern Africa, namely Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, Somalia, Comoros and the Seychelles.

All these embassies are working towards strengthening development cooperation and achieving the SDGs.

Amb Tangulrat during the interview
Amb Tangulrat during the interview
We regard Kenya as our strategic partner in East Africa and it remains our largest trading partner for many consecutive years. I believe there is much room for us to expand our cooperation
Sasirit Tangulrat

An increased interest in Africa has been referred to as another Scramble for Africa. Why is it arising now?

Not really at this time. We have been engaging with Africa for many years. 

Thailand started to engage with Africa long time ago because we believe in the South-South cooperation.

Thailand has been conducting the Look West policy, aiming to promote our relations with South Asia, Middle East and Africa.

And the other interest we have in Africa is the Thai people residing in African countries, who we have to take care of.

There is a lot of potential and talent in Africa, in which we can cooperate in various areas.

We are successful in providing technical assistance to many African countries. For example, in Mozambique, we helped them set up tilapia fish farming.

In Morocco, we provided them with solar dryer technology for food processing and we, the embassy in Nairobi, will do the same with Kenya in areas of food processing, aquaculture and public health.

What opportunities do potential Kenyan investors have in Thailand?

Thailand has the advantage of location. It is in the heart of Southeast Asia.

The Thai government has a policy to promote what we call the EEC: the Eastern Economic Corridor covering three provinces in the eastern part of Thailand.

We encourage foreign investors to invest in this area because it is well-linked with other parts of Thailand and connected to other neighbouring countries, where investors enjoy well-equipped facilities and privileges we offer. That’s why Thailand is considered one of the best investment destinations in the region.

In the EEC, we focus on 12 main industries, among them food for the future, automobile, wellness and public health, AI and robotics. There are many areas Kenyans can invest in Thailand.

In which areas would you encourage Thai investors to invest in Kenya?

One sector I mentioned is public health because this is also a national priority for Kenya and Thailand is very strong in this.

The second is fishery as we are a leading exporter. There is already a Thai company setting up factory in Seychelles to produce canned tuna for export. I believe Kenya, with its abundant resource of tuna, can provide the same investment opportunity for Thai investors. 

What collaboration can Thailand and Kenya have in the blue economy?

Thailand and Kenya are members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), and the blue economy is an area member states attach a lot of importance.

Kenya and Thailand work closely within the IORA scheme. But bilaterally, as I mentioned, one of my priority areas is technical cooperation. And one of the areas of technical cooperation is fishery and aquaculture. 

I met with the director of Marine and Fishery Research Institute in Mombasa two weeks ago, and we asked them to propose areas they are interested in getting our support.

I believe fishery is one area we can share our experiences. I will encourage the Thai private sector to invest in this so there is also transfer of technology. This will also contribute to the food security agenda of the Big Four.

I met Foreign Affairs CS Ambassador Raychelle Omamo and she mentioned that the blue economy is one area she would love to strengthen relations with Thailand, particularly regarding the Coast Guard, for more security in the Indian ocean.

Double taxation and the old bilateral investment treaty have been cited as among the hindrances of smooth trade. Have you considered reviewing this?

Our two countries have agreed that we will establish these two agreements, but they are still pending. We are ready to follow up with the authorities concerned because the agreements are instrumental in promoting trade and investment.

Thailand and Kenya have set up Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation in 2005 as a platform to revise, review, monitor and draw a roadmap to strengthen cooperation in all fields.

Kenya hosted the first JCC meeting in 2010, a long time ago, and now, it's Thailand's turn to host the second one. We had planned to host it in 2019 but we couldn’t due to the pandemic.

I have discussed with my counterparts at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that it's possible to do it online or virtual meeting. This will be a good opportunity to review and expedite the pending agreements. 

Any education opportunities in Thailand for Kenyan students?

Thailand has constantly provided scholarships to Kenyan students, both short-term training courses and post-graduate scholarships. This is one way to promote people-to-people connection.

So far, there are many scholars who have finished their training and education in Thailand and have become great friends, further promoting cultural cooperation.

We have an agreement in public health cooperation through which Thailand offers training and scholarship for Kenya students to further their education in the field.

Next month, three Kenyan scholars will go to Thailand to further their education in Master's and Doctorate degrees in health technology assessment.

How does Thailand leverage on culture to enhance people-to-people trade and investment and bilateral ties?

The embassy has launched many social media platforms, which is very important to connect our people easily. Other than the website, we have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, through which we did a campaign to connect our peoples.

We recently had campaigns on Thai foods in Kenya and invited Kenyans and experts to cook Thai food and post online.

I invited them over to my residence to have Thai food together. These kinds of small activities through digital technology can also help create a better understanding among our people and bring them closer.

There is an emergent digital foreign policy. Have you considered this particularly towards Kenya, which has been lauded as an ICT hub in the region?

Definitely, digital technology is a vital tool to strengthen our cooperation in many areas, and we attach great importance to digital technology, especially during Covid-19.

The pandemic has proved digital technology can help business people and even the common man to conduct their business as normally as possible.

So, this is another national agenda of the Thai government to promote digital technology and transform it to what we call Thailand 4.0, using digital technology as a tool for our social and economic development.

Kenya is already advanced in digital technology and I believe there's much room for both sides to use it as a tool to expand our cooperation.

Edited by T Jalio

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