KIJA’s recognition of Kenyan Ambassador Ngovi Kitau was the latest of many accolades the envoy has received during a five-year posting as his country’s first ambassador-ranked head of mission for promoting relations between South Korea the East African nation.
But now his time in South Korea is winding down.
Although the two countries have a half century of bilateral ties ― they recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations ― until just a decade ago, the depth of South Korean-Kenyan linkages remained superficial.
It was not until July 2007 that Kenya opened a chancery for the first time in Seoul. Shortly after that, Kitau was tapped as his country’s first ambassador to Korea in late 2009, and officially presented his Letter of Credence in March 2010.
“One of the challenges we faced was that there was no interaction at the senior government level between the Korean government and the Kenyan side,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Friday, just before a farewell party organized for him. The first high-level exchange took place in 2012, he added.
In July of that year, Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik met with his counterpart in Nairobi during a six-day trip to Kenya and Mozambique to boost cooperation in resources development and to strengthen relations.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga reciprocated four months later in November with a visit of his own to Seoul.
|Kenyan Ambassador Ngovi Kitau (center) poses with Hans-Ulrich Seidt (left), former German Ambassador to South Korea; David Kim (second from left), honorary consul general of Bangladesh; Ly Kwang-yong (second from right), honorary consul of Malta; and Dutch Ambassador to South Korea Paul Menkveld during a farewell party for Kitau in southern Seoul on Friday. (Philip Iglauer/The Korea Herald)|
“That started the whole process. The speaker of the National Assembly visited Kenya and his counterpart came to Korea. There has been a lot of interaction since then,” said the 54-year-old businessman-turned-diplomat. “President Park Geun-hye also sent a special envoy to Kenya twice, which is a very positive thing.”
One of the high points of his posting was the establishment of direct flights between the two countries. Flights between Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and South Korea’s Incheon International Airport began in January 2012. The direct flights by Korean Air were the first ever to connect East Asia and Africa.
During his posting here the number of South Korean travelers has doubled to nearly 10,000 annually ― an important achievement considering the fact that only 15,000 Japanese tourists visit Kenya annually.
Expanding the allure of Kenya as a travel destination throughout East Asia is vital to a nation well-known for its migrations of wildebeest in the Masai Mara National Reserve, safaris, and the holidaymakers that the animals attract.
Tourism is 10 percent of Kenya’s annual GDP and is even more important as a source of hard currency revenue. The shilling is currently down to 89.2 against the greenback, the weakest it has been since December 2011.
“On the economic side, Kenyan exports to Korea have increased by more than three times. Before we started operations here, Kenyan exports to Korea were about $5 million. Last year we closed at $30 million. That is a dramatic improvement. Korean exports to Kenya increased from $200 (million) to about $300 million in the same period,” Kitau explained.
He also led the effort to set up the Korea-Kenya Economic Forum, a trade and investment group which met for the first time in March.
Hana Industrial CEO Hong Ki-ho chairs the KKEF. The trade promotion group will likely play a big role in increasing commercial ties between the two countries, with other members including Shinn Tae-yong, chairman of the Korea Importers Association, and Chung Kun-mo, a member of Kenya’s National Economic and Social Council and an adviser to the Kenya government.
Just months later in July, South Korea and Kenya inked three agreements fundamental to building significant trade links.
The two countries agreed to an MOU on a framework on grant aid which will guide how overseas development assistance will be managed; an agreement on the promotion and protection of investments in Kenya and Korea; and an agreement on the avoidance of double taxation.
“The relations between Kenya and Korea are going to grow exponentially because now the dialogue channels are open and we have the interaction of the senior officials,” Kitau said.
“That is the most important part. Plus, now we have this industrialization master plan based on the Korean industrialization model. We are developing (a science and technology research university) based on the ‘KAIST model.’ That shows the relationship is going to be very strong. Otherwise why would we do those kinds of things?”
By Philip Iglauer (email@example.com)