We have heard the stories, intra-Africa trade is pitiful; around 17 per cent, which is dismal compared with Europe’s 69 per cent, Asia’s 59 per cent, and North America’s 31 per cent.
But, as the good old African proverb says, there is always a winner even in a monkey's beauty contest. When you break it down to intra-regional trade, the East African Community is the beauty queen. Intra-EAC trade is the highest among all the regional economic blocs, above 20 per cent. This is far higher than the continental average of 11.9 per cent.
Perhaps nowhere does this relatively frantic East African trade manifest than at the Kenya-Uganda borders of Busia and Malaba. Historically, these border points have been marked by excruciatingly long delays, especially for trucks carrying goods across the borders.
Over the years, reforms and changes, including 24-hour border openings, and lately the One-Stop-Border-Posts (OSBPs), have significantly reduced the time trucks spend clearing Customs and other processes.
That, however, only means, as I witnessed early in the week at Malaba, that you now have an eight kilometre-long queue of trucks on the Kenyan side waiting to enter Uganda, instead of the 20 kilometres it might have been without the reforms.
A short while back, this time at the Busia border point, it was five kilometres long. People said on some days these days, the queues are actually longer than 10 kilometres.
With growing populations and increased trade, it would seem we have reached the peak of managing the borders the way we do today. In another three to five years at this rate, the border regimes will just collapse under the weight of truck volumes. The passenger immigration processes are still remarkably speedy, but the trucks are now choking off access for small cars, meaning it is taking longer for them to get through too.
East Africa is like the chap who won a lottery jackpot — then blew it all at the casino. The good fortunes of trade and passenger volumes, will all be lost if nothing drastic is done to ease passage through, especially, Busia and Malaba.
Imagine the nightmare it will be in just another five years if the Democratic Republic of Congo is ever admitted to the EAC, and South Sudan finds peace and gets to be led by enlightened chaps who engineer an economic turnaround there. These borders will simply melt down.
In the short term, the path ahead is clear. The case for revival of the Kisumu port and what at first seemed like a questionable decision by Uganda to build a new port in Bukasa in Wakiso, to circumvent the gridlock at Malaba and Busia, now seem quite compelling.
The Malaba and Busia borders will have to create new and separate truck and passenger terminals, at least a kilometre apart.
Immediately, they could build flyovers starting 20 kilometres out, for passenger vehicles to the present OSBPs.
Passengers crossing borders would stop at rooftop parking lots, and climb downstairs into the immigration halls to get the stamp thing in their passports.
There are still some technological innovations that bring improvements, but ultimately Uganda and Kenya will have to bite the bullet and simply get rid of the border apparatus between the two countries. End of story.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3