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The Democratic Republic of Congo becomes the biggest country in East Africa’s trading bloc

Two men, one making a call on a cellular phone, stand outside a roadside stall selling pre-paid cellphone cards in Kinshasa.
A cellphone stall in the DRC capital, Kinshasa.
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Trade in eastern Africa is set for a boost after officially welcoming its seventh member, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), into the East Africa Community (EAC) today (March 29). Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda are the other members.

The DRC is the largest and most populous country to join the EAC, bringing a market of 90 million people and immediately upgrading the region’s GDP from $193 billion to $240 billion.

Despite sharing borders with five EAC members, the East African Business Council reports trade between the DRC and its neighbors has been surprisingly low. Over the last seven years, the proportion of EAC exports to the DRC has averaged only 13.5%. The DRC’s top importers are currently China, South Africa, and Zambia. But now, business and trading opportunities could grow in the region.

“From the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean”

“The EAC has a population of about 175 million people with 15% intra-trade. The DRC has 90 million people. That’ll bring the bloc to over 250 million,” says Abdullahi Halakhe, an expert on African security. “That’s a huge market that will open the corridor from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.”

Known for its minerals—holding 60% of the world’s coltan, with abundant reserves of copper, diamond, and tin—the DRC is a magnet for investment. With a global push towards renewable energy, Halakhe argues that the DRC’s reserves of cobalt, which is used to make batteries for electric vehicles, will be the most sought after commodities.

Kenyan firms have already shown interest in expanding investment in the DRC. Last year, Equity Group, East Africa’s largest banking group, sponsored a two-week trade mission as they announced plans to fund Kenyan businesses setting up shop or expanding into the country.

The DRC will additionally gain access to the two main ports in the region—Mombasa and Dar es Salaam—allowing goods to be imported and exported at a much faster pace, making it even more attractive to investors.

Security in eastern DRC remains unstable

The move may also help bring more stability to the DRC, which has been riven by conflict for decades. On March 28, violence erupted in the east of the country when M23 rebels attacked the DRC army near the border with Uganda and Rwanda, Reuters reports.

“Some of the member countries have better lessons of dealing with terrorism,” Halakhe tells Quartz. “Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya have their militaries in Somalia fighting against Al Shabaab. That know-how could be invaluable in the DRC’s fight against the Allied Democratic Forces, and other groups.”

However, there are still questions about the EAC’s overall effectiveness. The regional bloc continues to grapple with unreliable funding, political disagreements, and trade disputes across borders. Additionally, not all partners have implemented the use of a national identity card to ease travel between countries.

Despite ongoing challenges, it is a step that has been celebrated by African leaders.

“DRC is part of the region. It is colonialism that brought problems,” tweeted Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. “Now that Africa got its freedom, we should get out of the distortion.”

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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