The United States and five East African countries pledged on Thursday to ease trade flows and set the stage for more U.S. investment, a program that could be extended to other parts of Africa.
The agreement commits Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi to cooperate with the United States in customs issues, ease red tape at borders, reduce customs wait times and harmonize trade standards.
As part of the deal, which has been in the works since 2013, Washington will provide training on food safety, animal and plant health standards and international regulations.
“We see this agreement and all our work with (East Africa) to date as an important steppingstone, not the final destination,” U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said.
China’s rapid entry into Africa has fueled a rush to the continent by Western and other economies, including India and Brazil, and the region’s economy has grown more than 6 percent in the last decade.
Trade in goods between the United States and the East African bloc grew by 52 percent to $2.8 billion in 2014, according to federal data. Exports were at $2 billion, while imports totaled $743 million.
All five countries currently take part in the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a program that grants African countries duty-free access to U.S. markets. The program is set to expire later this year and the White House has already kicked off an early bid to raise congressional support for a renewal.
The East African region could become even more attractive as oil was recently discovered in Kenya and Uganda.
Currently, the region’s largest exports are agricultural products and textiles.
The Obama administration also said that Thursday’s deal lays a foundation for more arrangement with the rest of the African continent, which currently is home to the world’s fastest-growing middle class and six of 10 of the fastest-growing economies.