VICTORIA FALLS, 7 June -Trade among Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) member countries has increased significantly since the liberalisation of the bloc’s trade regime eight years ago. President Mwai Kibaki who spoke after handing over the Chairmanship of Africa\’s main trading bloc on Sunday said that intra-COMESA trade rose by approximately 369 percent last year to $15billion from $3.2billion recorded in 2001, when the region\’s Free Trade Area (FTA) was launched.
"There is greater potential for the promotion of intra-COMESA trade if we maintain peace and security in the region," he told the 13th COMESA Summit in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
President Kibaki attributed the growth to efforts by the 19 member states to promote trade in services.
“Currently, trade in services account for about 45 percent of the COMESA GDP and it has the potential to enhance the bloc\’s economic growth,” he said.
During the Summit which was attended by 10 Heads of State from the COMESA region, President Kibaki said he was happy with achievements made during his tenure.
“This includes the launch of the COMESA Fund which provides budgetary support to countries facing challenges in the implementation of various programs,” he said.
"The second window of the COMESA Fund also seeks to address the region\’s infrastructural needs and arrangements are underway to make it operational," he said and added that the region\’s Infrastructure Fund would be used to mobilise resources for infrastructure development.”
He also said he was satisfied on the success of the October 2008 tripartite meeting of COMESA, East African Community and the Southern Africa Development Community.
“Consensus to harmonise various programs to eventually merge the three economic communities into a single bloc has been reached. This process will begin with the establishment of a FTA arrangement covering all three economic communities," he said.
The summit at Victoria Falls also saw Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe take over the helm of COMESA for one year tenure.
"History is replete with examples that show that this (regional integration) is the only way to make a real progress as no country can develop in isolation," Mugabe told the summit.
The 85-year-old leader said more trade and investment allowed for greater circulation of knowledge and skills.
"Regional economic integration is our strategy of achieving this objective."
Once a dynamic country, Zimbabwe\’s economy has contracted by more than 45 percent over the past decade as a result of political and economic instability.
The former British colony has been hit by food shortages and the world\’s highest inflation rate.
A senior official said Thursday that COMESA was preparing a financial rescue package for Zimbabwe.
COMESA members meeting in the resort town of Victoria Falls were also set to launch a customs union on Sunday to facilitate the free movement of goods in the region.
Under the deal, the 19 countries in COMESA will impose the same tariffs on goods from outside the region.
Raw materials and capital goods will travel across borders without tariffs, while intermediate products will be taxed at 10 percent and finished goods at 25 percent.
Most countries have also lifted visa restrictions on travel within the bloc, with members ranging from tourist hotspot Egypt to some of the world\’s poorest and most conflict-torn nations, like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The COMESA region is home to 400 million people, with a combined gross domestic product of 360 billion dollars.
COMESA consists of Burundi, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.