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Tough love: AfCFTA won’t work unless we do

by Amy Harris, Senior Consultant, BrightGuide Africa

The agreement could dramatically shift the dynamics of trade and growth in the continent. But we’ve got to be honest about how much work it will take. AfCFTA won’t work unless we do. For it to succeed, African countries need to rise above national politics and collaborate. Are we up to the task?

Last week, I attended a conference titled “Enhancing Trade and Industrial Development – A Game Changer for Africa’s Growth” hosted by ILI- South African Centre for Excellence and GIZ and featuring a line-up of pretty impressive speakers. The sessions covered all the things you’d expect for a topic as big and complex as a continental free trade agreement – barriers, opportunities, next steps, etc. But the reality is, AfCFTA won’t work unless we do.

Why does AfCFTA matter?

If, unlike myself, you haven’t actively been following everything African Continental Free Trade Area-related for the last several months, here’s a brief snapshot: the trade agreement, currently signed by 54 of the 55 African Union states, is an ambitious effort to reduce barriers to intra-African trade, eventually creating a unified continental market of more than a billion people with a combined GDP of USD3 trillion.


If Africa manages to pull this off, it will be, as the conference title suggested, nothing short of a game-changer for the continent. But I’ll confess, I’ve gone backwards and forwards on my optimism for AfCFTA – I’m sure I’m not alone in this either.

I spent several years of my post-graduate school career working in international trade (shout out to my friends at the Van Andel Global Trade Center). So, although I know it’s not a silver bullet, I’m a believer in trade’s potential for growing and diversifying economic development, building collaborative and beneficial partnerships, and for more effectively using the skills and resources at each country’s disposal. In fact, I went back to university to get an MBA in large part because I was so interested in the role that business has to play in sustainable development, particularly with regard to Africa.

On many days, I can get really excited when I think about how, if successful, AfCFTA could dramatically shift the dynamics of trade, sufficiency and growth in the continent.

*If* is the key word here though. I wouldn’t be a very good Zimbabwean if I didn’t bring a fair amount of scepticism to any endeavour that relied on national governments to deliver on promises and plans that sound almost too good to be true. It’s one thing to talk about the agreement, it’s another to actually do the hard work involved in implementing it. And so I also have several moments of thinking that the very real obstacles facing AfCFTA’s success are too numerous and deeply embedded for us to overcome.

Many of these challenges are immediately obvious: infrastructural shortcomings, lack of digitization, nationalism and ongoing regional conflicts, lack of transparency, numerous language differences to navigate, etc. Even considering these though, there is no reason that in time, Africa shouldn’t be a big player on the global stage. But it will take an almost seismic shift in current operating patterns to achieve it – specifically around who is included in the implementation process and how we approach intra-African agreements of this scale.

1. We need to include women and youth

The importance of including women and youth in these critical early stages of rolling out AFCFTA was highlighted frequently during the conference sessions. These two groups make up a huge part of the market. But simply because women and youth may now have more open doors (as shown by the AfCFTA Secretariat’s commitment to intentionally hire youth, or the World Trade Organization’s appointing its first African and first female Director-General, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, this year), it doesn’t automatically follow that those individuals are all adequately prepared or equipped to fully participate in the conversations and decision-making happening in the room. Access alone doesn’t equal empowerment or equality.

If you’re already at the table and you have the expertise and knowledge – I think it’s part of your job in building #TheAfricaWeWant to share that.

If you’re already at the table and you have the expertise and knowledge – I think it’s part of your job in building #TheAfricaWeWant to share that. Capacity building, educational training, and effectively communicating processes to all levels of players will be crucial for ensuring AfCFTA works for the people who will be implementing it daily. Also, we should be asking if there is anything we can learn from how other regional trade groups (COMESA, ECOWAS, etc) have actively – and successfully or unsuccessfully – included women and youth.

This inclusion could look like:
  • training support for trade facilitation and business development
  • capacity building through learning and knowledge sharing across borders
  • creating policies to actively include African women entrepreneurs in the procurement process, with access to financial services, etc.
  • technological development and assistance (AfCFTA processes will have to be digital – and probably mobile-friendly, it’s no secret that a huge number of Africans have access to mobile data but not to desktops and/or Wi-Fi – how are we using that information to develop and drive networks of traders, SMEs, transporters etc. in the roll out?)
  • businesses partnering with educational facilities to ensure youth have the skills they need to succeed in trading, transporting, running an SME, etc.

2. Trade is not a zero-sum game. But it is a give and take game.

In order to benefit from the trade agreement, countries will have to compromise in some areas and give up an element of their individual priorities and agendas, trusting that others will do the same. It will need increased collaboration and transparency by all. I think this is going to be one of the greatest challenges for AfCFTA’s success.

In my experience, African countries and their governments are incredibly protective of their sovereignty – and it makes sense to be so on a continent whose history is deeply embedded in colonialism.

But we’re also the continent of ubuntu – where we recognize our common humanity and the concept of community is an important building block of our lives.

But we’re also the continent of ubuntu – for the most part, we recognize our common humanity and the concepts of community and interdependence are important building blocks of our lives. If we can get to the point where we realize AfCFTA shouldn’t be about politics, it should be about the potential we collectively hold for making our countries and continent better for all, we might have a chance to succeed. We can’t do that alone. The fact that 54 of 55 African Union states have signed on for the agreement is a huge starting point for moving forward, but we’ve got to put action to that commitment now and do the work.

As part of a younger generation of Africans, I am respectful of our complex history and each wanting to protect individual national interests. But I’m also eager for us to actively be building for our future and less dependent on the operational patterns of the past. And that will only happen by us actually working together, across borders, with inclusion, greater transparency and good governance.

The African Continental Free Trade Area is hugely ambitious. It will be a long and complex process (not without false starts and failings), but as Africans, I think we owe it to ourselves to give it all we’ve got to make it happen.