The United States and Kenya formally launched negotiations Wednesday on a bilateral trade deal, which the countries hope could be replicated across Africa.
"Under President [Donald] Trump's leadership, we look forward to negotiating and concluding a comprehensive, high-standard agreement with Kenya that can serve as a model for additional agreements across Africa," said U.S. Ambassador Robert Lighthizer in a joint U.S.-Kenya statement.
The first round of discussions, held over the next two weeks, will be conducted remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Both countries announced formation of a working group to "lay the groundwork for a stronger future trade relationship" in August 2018, the same year the relationship between the two countries was upped to a strategic partnership. Trump and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta officially agreed to pursue trade negotiations in February 2020.
The U.S. and Kenya also announced a new strategic cooperation framework Wednesday, meant to help Kenya benefit fully from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows most products from sub-Saharan Africa into the U.S. duty free. The program is scheduled to expire in 2025.
The negotiations have seen some pushback. Nearly 30 nongovernmental organizations signed a letter Tuesday against the proposed agreement, arguing that bilateral free trade would hurt Kenyan agriculture and manufacturing and undermine regional economic integration efforts through the African Continental Free Trade Area.
Lighthizer emphasized a deal's potential for regional unity, saying, "We believe this agreement with Kenya will complement Africa's regional integration efforts, including in the East African community and the landmark African Continental Free Trade Area, and the United States pledges its continued support to help the AfCFTA achieve its fullest potential."
Betty Maina, Kenya's cabinet secretary for industrialization, trade, and enterprise development, said in the statement that an agreement would boost Kenyan exports and foreign investment and would create jobs.
Trump, who opposes U.S. membership in the World Trade Organization, has led the charge to negotiate separate bilateral agreements with American trade partners.