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New ambassador on why US means business in relations with Kenya – Business Daily

The new US Ambassador to Kenya Margaret ‘Meg’ Whitman jetted into Nairobi in the middle of an election and is having to navigate a political transition that has delayed trade talks that were initiated by former presidents of the two countries.
The Business Daily sat down with Ms Whitman to discuss her business approach to diplomacy, the fate of the Trump-Kenyatta-era trade negotiations and how she plans to plumb out hurdles.
President Joe Biden picked you, a businesswoman, for Kenya, a departure from career diplomats. Has the US strategy in Kenya changed?
I think it underscores a couple of things. When the president asked me to do this job, he said, ‘listen, Africa is so important to the United States, and the continent as a whole’. He said to me, ‘did you know one in four people on earth in 2050 will live in Africa and one in three people of working age will live in Africa?’
He said Kenya is one of the most important countries in Africa, and very important to the United States. So, he said, ‘I’d like you to go to Kenya because I think your business background will further our joint economic goals.’ And he also said that Kenya is the tech capital of East Africa. It may even be the tech capital of all of Africa. And my tech background, he said, ‘you know, the fact that you are a technology executive, I think underscores the importance that we put behind that area.’
So is it going to be more of business now going forward?
What I have learned since I have been in Kenya is even our humanitarian arm USAID is focused more on business, helping small and medium-sized businesses. I was at Exotic [EPZ macadamia nuts processing facility] and there’s a million-dollar grant to these two, really successful, compelling female entrepreneurs to help grow their business and train people.
Visa delays have hurt trade relations between Kenya and the US. Is there a long-term solution?
Well, we are excited about the progress we’ve made in visas. There is more work to do because it’s pretty funny when you announced that all of a sudden if you had a visa for the last four years, you don’t need an interview. Well, then a lot of people who had visas for the last four years, came in. We have seen this jump in applications and now we are back down.
But as I said, we’re excited about that because it was just unacceptable. It is not good for Kenya, it is not good for the United States. You know, the real heart-wrenching stories are the students who are trying to go to school in the United States and couldn’t get visas. So we prioritised them.
Some low-hanging fruits?
There are several deals in light of the economic side of things that I think we can get there faster maybe than we had before. We have several new officers, and a new economic officer, so I think there are some things that we may be able to close or push to fruition a little faster than we otherwise might have.
But I have to say, I have been really impressed with the US Embassy team, the staff, and their dedication and many of them have been here for 3, 4, and 5 years. So they know Kenya pretty well.
You are obviously in competition with other countries like China, what do you think is your competitive edge?
Well, I suppose we are in competition to some degree with other countries, but there’s plenty of opportunity for everyone to do business in Kenya.
What American companies offer is capital, right? We offer technology, every company in America is a technology company and so the ability to apply technology to agriculture, to apparel, to almost any sector, I think that is something that we offer.
What are some of the concerns for American firms operating in Kenya?
So every industry has different challenges, right? But a common thread has been making sure that there is enough trained talent to either be in the tech business or out here on the factory floor.
US companies want to hire young people because the unemployment is quite high for young people, but getting them trained to move into these kinds of positions is a big concern.
I think there has been a sentiment about, some changes in regulations or rules that would make it easier to do business, which is not unique to Kenya. When I talk to American companies, they always say, if we have this different regulation or less regulation.
And then people always talk about the consistency of taxes. Taxes change a lot in Kenya as they do in many other countries, but what businesses need, and I can tell you cause I’ve been a businesswoman, is a certainty.
Businesses can work with almost anything if the rules are made and then the rules stay in place for a while.
Speaking of rules of engagement what are the plans for Agoa, will they be extended past 2025?
Well, we don’t know yet, but I think everyone would agree that Agoa has been a big success story. You know the US is now Kenya’s largest export market. And I think that’s in large part due to Agoa because what’s driving that is in fact apparel.
Does the Biden administration favour this multilateral approach through Agoa or prioritise the bilateral engagement initiated by the former president?
I mean, my first priority as the United States ambassador is the relationship between Kenya and the United States. So more Kenyan imports to the United States, more exports to Kenya. So I’m very interested in that bilateral relationship.
But listen, we live in a world where everyone has to cooperate, and I think there is the power of many. So I have got to be good friends with colleagues, with many of the other heads of mission here. I think when we all work together, we’re stronger.
Now that Kenya has a new administration in place, when do we expect the talks on the bilateral deal to start in earnest?
Well, first of all, the Cabinet just got announced, they have to get confirmed. So I would think two weeks to a month before the government is in place. But we’re already meeting with some of the new Cabinet members. I have had a chance to spend a bit of time with the President, so we’ll start when everyone gets settled.
Did you get to talk with the President on some of the thorny issues around intellectual property, corruption in tendering and GMOs?
Well, the President just announced that he wanted to lift the ban on GMO seeds and crops and so that will, I think, have to go through Parliament, if I’m not mistaken. But he said he wants to do that in large part because of the drought and food insecurity challenges that the country has.
In terms of other bilateral agreements, you know, we have negotiated the framework for the Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership. Our US trade representative Catherine Tai had a meeting with Betty Maina who used to be her counterpart. That I am sure will resume when the government gets in place.
And there are some very interesting opportunities around the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is a US grant-making institution.
We’re excited about Moderna’s $500 million expansion of the mRNA vaccines production facility in the country, which would be the first mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility for Moderna outside of Boston, Massachusetts, where their headquarters is.
So I think that is a really big opportunity and I think that means that other pharmaceutical companies could be very interested in coming to Kenya.
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Finance specialist with courses ranging from corporate finance, perfonal finance and startup finance. Msc. Acturail Science, Bsc. Finance, COP Insurance and phD. Business Advministration -FInance(ongoing)