Leaders from 26 African countries are holding a summit aimed at increasing economic and political ties among three of the continent's trading blocs. The meeting opened today in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

The summit brings together leaders of member states from the East African Community (EAC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

They are expected to discuss the creation of a united economic community. They will also look at ways to establish free movement of people among the countries of the three trading blocs.

Bigger Is Better

Nairobi-based economic analyst Robert Shaw says it makes sense for the three large trading blocs to move toward greater trade integration and the creation of a larger market for investment: "African markets as countries are actually very, very small...If you want to be more attractive, you must be a bigger market."

Many of these regional groupings already call on member states to break down trade barriers and promote the free movement of people and goods. Shaw says the problem is that free movement exists only among the members of the three trading blocs: "The COMESA group has proved to be relatively successful," he says. "Trade among members has been growing at a greater rate than the economies of its countries. (But) it does not include most of southern Africa. The interesting thing about this [proposed combined trading bloc] is that would include the biggest economy in east and southern Africa, South Africa, [as well as the other countries of southern Africa].

He says a larger market would see member countries playing a complementary role. "Kenya in East Africa is a regional hub and has a reasonably sophisticated manufacturing sector, while Tanzania has huge agricultural potential and capacity. Tanzania could be a major food supplier for Kenya, which for some time will be a major food importer. There is the demand for factories producing fertilizer, but to have a big enough market, you need a regional market."

Shaw says recent global events, including increases in fuel and food prices for African consumers, have emphasized the need for the conference. Many countries, he says, are talking collectively about how to formulate better policies and improve trade and cooperation. "They are going to need it," says Shaw. "We are all going to need it."