COMESA – The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has partnered with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) to harmonise standards with a view of increasing market access of agricultural produce in the region.

This follows the launch of a new capacity building project to mainstream sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS) priorities into national policies.

The project dubbed ‘Mainstreaming SPS capacity building into the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and other National Policy Frameworks to Enhance Market Access’ will be implemented in five countries under the bloc.

The project has a budget of US$ 464,075 out of which US$ 390,075 is provided by the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF) a World Trade Organization agency.

It will be implemented under the ‘Prioritizing SPS Investments for Market Access (P-IMA) framework, an initiative of the STDF in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Malawi.

Kenya is second after Uganda to start implementing the project whose inception meeting and high-level stakeholder dialogue is taking place in Nairobi.

The event brings together experts from the private sector, relevant public sector departments and institutions of government to build consensus on the most critical investments.

Kenya’s Trade Permanent Secretary, Chris Kiptoo, said the variation of standards in the COMESA countries and the continent undermines the region’s capacity to trade with itself.

“The diversity of strengths and weaknesses on the continent demands greater collaboration between countries that belong to the same Free Trade Area,” he said.

Dr Kiptoo observer that compliance with SPS measures opens export opportunities for producers and exporters both at the intra-regional and international levels.

Currently, intra COMESA trade remains low relative to other regions, at around 11% of total COMESA exports with the majority of traded products being of low added value.

COMESA Director of Agriculture and Industry, Thierry Kalonji attributed this to lack of industrial diversification, the existence of Non-Tariff Barriers such as health standards requirements, supply-side constraints and cumbersome border measures.

“Almost 70% of the reported NTBs in the region are constituted by Technical Barriers to Trade (TBTs) and SPS measures.

“If they are not addressed, our countries will find it difficult to take advantage of the mega-trade agreements such as the tripartite and the continental free trade area,” he said.

Mr Kalonji highlighted that the new project seeks to address; varied TBT standards and regulatory frameworks across member States, absence of good regulatory practice and, low levels of compliance in the public and private sectors as some of SPS challenges that countries face.

With the majority of the 21 COMESA Member States heavily dependent on agriculture, fisheries, and livestock,  Kalonji said the production and trade of agricultural and fisheries produce is of high priority, if only as a stepping stone to industrialization.