In Nairobi, a landmark push for a global blue economy

Fishermen in Kenya. Photo by: famcom / CC BY-NC

TORONTO — Some 4,000 people are set to gather in Nairobi this week for the first global conference to focus solely on the sustainable blue economy. Hosted by Kenya, with Canada and Japan as co-hosts, the event will be the first to focus on how to channel global water resources in sustainable ways to enhance development.

“It’s not a lack of convening people on oceans, the problem tends to still be how we can achieve good environmental policy.”

— Yannick Beaudoin, director general of Ontario and Northern Canada, David Suzuki Foundation

Described as a “bold initiative” by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference is expected to draw participants from some 180 countries, as well as heads of state. It will build on the momentum created by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, and the call for action at the first United Nations Ocean Conference last year, organizers say.

According to one World Bank estimate, the blue economy contributes $3.6 trillion toward the global economy. The bank has stressed the potential it holds for small island developing states and coastal least developed countries.

The blue economy is able to “expand development frontiers and job creation opportunities on a scale previously underestimated,” said Japhet Ntiba, permanent secretary of Kenya’s department of fisheries and blue economy. According to the World Bank, sustainable fishing, one blue economy sector, makes up more than $270 billion per year of the global gross domestic product. In addition, coastal and marine tourism is behind more than 6.5 million jobs.

Kenyan leadership

“Kenya is raring to provide global leadership in one of the most important issues of this century: the sustainable use of global water resources,” Ntiba told Devex.

Nancy Karigithu, principal secretary at the State Department for Shipping and Maritime Affairs at Kenya’s Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing, and Urban Development, said Nairobi had taken the lead for a number of reasons.

“First of all, Kenya has had a long, interesting association with seas and ocean governance, with the late Professor Frank Njenga widely acknowledged as the father of the maritime concept of exclusive economic zone,” Karigithu said. The EEZ is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea under which rights and jurisdiction of coastal states and the rights and freedoms of others are governed by provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“The government has recently embarked on various actions to influence policy changes with a view to making Kenya a maritime nation,” Karigithu added.

Article 15 of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 singles out the continent’s blue economy and how it can contribute toward Africa’s “transformation and growth.” It stresses that this can be done through marine and aquatic biotechnology knowledge; the growth of a continent-wide shipping sector; the development of sea, river, and lake transport and fishing; and the “exploitation and beneficiation” of deep-sea mineral resources and others.

Kenya itself boasts a maritime territory of 230,000 square kilometers but the nation’s blue economy is not exploited to its maximum potential, according to a 2017 report by the country’s Maritime Authority. And Kenya, a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, has been criticized from its own government for not doing enough to harness its marine resources.

The blue economy is singled out in the government’s “Kenya Vision 2030” development blueprint, aimed at transforming the nation into a middle-income country.

In 2016, the Kenyan government created a state department for fisheries, aquaculture, and the blue economy, Karigithu pointed out. The Maritime Technology Cooperation Centre for the African Region, one of only five global institutions set up by the International Organization for Migration with funding from the European Union for the purpose of capacity building for climate change mitigation in the maritime and shipping industry, was also launched in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa in 2017. Kenyatta unveiled a new coastguard service earlier this month, aimed at targeting illegal fishing, which costs the nation some $100 million annually.

“Kenya is hoping to get deals on investment in the sector,” Karigithu said when asked what the country hoped to get out of the conference.

Global partners

The summit comes after Kenya reached out to some of the biggest ocean-reliant donors for assistance.

With the world’s longest coastline, Canada decided to partner with Kenya on the summit in the hope of finding international solutions to problems such as sustainable fishing and ocean pollution.

“Unless we address [such problems] on an international basis, they obviously create challenges for all of us,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian coast guard

The country is contributing $2 million for the conference, earmarked “to enable participation from all corners of the world, especially small island developing states and least developed countries, with particular emphasis on women,” Wilkinson said.

“Having their representation at the conference ensures we can benefit from their perspectives, as we all have much to gain from the sustainable blue economy.

When asked about desired outcomes from the conference, Wilkinson said that a “great result would be an agreement to continue the conversation.”

“Certainly, Canada will be coming there to make some pronouncements with respect to things that we’re committed to doing and we are hopeful that others will do likewise,” he said.

Yannick Beaudoin, director general of Ontario and Northern Canada at Canadian nonprofit the David Suzuki Foundation, will be attending the conference and speaking about managing and sustaining marine life, and conservation and sustainable economic activities.

“My main focus will be to work to achieve sound sustainable economic policy rather than environmental,” he told Devex.

“It’s not a lack of convening people on oceans, the problem tends to still be how we can achieve good environmental policy,” he added.

Beaudoin said he’d be interested in seeing some “real creativity and experimentation” that other countries could showcase at the event. “I’d like to see maybe a government like Seychelles, for example, who have been pioneering a lot of very interesting innovation on financial instruments.”

Japan, meanwhile, announced in October it would co-host the conference, contributing nearly $3 million in funding.

A spokesperson from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Devex that the country had decided to co-host the conference “in accordance with the history of Japan’s development through the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.’” This aims to increase connectivity, stability, and prosperity between Africa and Asia. 

“We expect the conference to deepen discussions between Japan and the countries involved, such as promoting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and progress of connectivity with Africa,” said the spokesperson.

Organizing a conference of “such magnitude and at global level [has not been] a walk in the park,” said Karigithu, from Kenya’s shipping and maritime department.

“Much is expected from Kenya to lead the way, in regard to sustainable use of her blue economy space that seeks to strike a balance between productivity and sustainability, taking into consideration all aspects of inclusivity.”

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    Amy Fallon

    Amy Fallon is an Australian freelance journalist currently based in Uganda. She has also reported from Australia, the U.K. and Asia, writing for a wide range of outlets on a variety of issues including breaking news, and international development, and human rights topics. Amy has also worked for News Deeply, NPR, The Guardian, AFP news agency, IPS, Citiscope, and others.