Economic development

Free trade across Africa remains a distant goal

The Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) was launched in 2015 and its operational phase started in 2021. It has huge potential – it will create the world’s largest free trade area with 1.3 billion consumers – but progress has been slow.

The problems were highlighted by South African deputy president Paul Mashatile at an AfCFTA business forum meeting in Cape Town. They centred on infrastructure and particularly roads, which he said were critical to facilitating cross-border trade and regional integration.

“The quality of much of the continent’s maritime, road and railway infrastructure is less than satisfactory. There are road links with generally poor infrastructure throughout the continent’s five regions.

“Yet roads carry 80% of goods and 90% of passengers. Without this infrastructure, rail and maritime, trade cannot realise its full potential,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mashatile was optimistic, believing the continent was moving towards one African market.

“We are well on our way to creating the world’s largest single free trade area, with 1.3 billion people and a gross domestic product of $3.4 trillion,” he said.

“The implementation of the AfCFTA will improve intra-Africa trade, the continent’s share and participation in global trade, and improve her economy as well as contribute to lifting millions of people out of poverty.”

He noted that Rebecca Grynspan, Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, had pointed out that Africa has $21.9 billion of untapped export potential. She had suggested that “an additional $9 billion of export potential can be realised through partial tariff liberalisation under the AfCFTA over the next five years”.

It’s work in progress towards a worthy, and potentially very rewarding goal.