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Africa’s Voices on the AfCFTA: A Call for Inclusive Trade

Mamadou Biteye - Former Managing Director, Africa Regional Office, The Rockefeller Foundation
Vera Songwe — Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
Morning trading at the food produce market in Kakamega Village, Kenya.

In November 2018, we were proud to organize the first ever Africa Trade Forum on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in Nigeria. The convening examined the role that the AfCFTA could play in securing brighter futures for its bulging population of over 1 billion. The Agreement commits countries to removing tariffs on 90 percent of goods, liberalizing services among African countries, and tackling so-called “non-tariff barriers” – such as long delays at the border – which hamper trade between African countries.

AfCFTA has the potential to boost intra-African trade by over 50%.

Underpinning the agreement is a belief that consolidating Africa into one trade area provides greater opportunities for businesses and consumers alike, and increases the chance to support sustainable development in the world’s least developed region. In fact, ECA estimates that the AfCFTA has the potential to boost intra-African trade by over 50%, which would have significant implications for wealth creation, employment and social infrastructure in education and health.

Co-organized by the ECA and The Rockefeller Foundation in collaboration with the African Union Commission (AUC) and hosted by the Federal Government of Nigeria, the AfCFTA convening brought together and connected governments, advocates, corporations, NGOs and other civil society organizations — very much in the spirit of The Rockefeller Foundation’s pursuit of positive change around the world. With these values in mind, the Forum not only targeted policy makers and traditional influencers from across the continent but also included and gave voice to African citizens.

This contributed to injecting further momentum to the AfCFTA ratification process across the continent. Since the Forum, more than 10 additional countries have ratified the AfCFTA, and it is widely expected that the 22 ratifications needed for the landmark agreement to enter into force, will be received before the anniversary of the Kigali signing this month. The Forum highlighted that while governments are responsible for setting an environment conducive for business and trade, it is the private sector’s responsibility to then drive economic growth using the tools afforded by such agreements, in the interests of citizens and customers alike.

Against this backdrop this year, ECA will convene three more Africa Trade Forums in different sub-regions under the theme of “AfCFTA ratification and implementation: boosting competitiveness and job creation through regional trade and investment.”

A key part of the November Forum’s success was a complementary online poll to assess people’s perception of the AfCFTA, including understanding its potential developmental outcomes. The poll was executed by The Rockefeller Foundation and ran for a six-week period from before the Forum until November 30, 2018–and was even extended upon request of Nigerian government officials.

In total, more than 2,000 respondents from 42 countries across Africa shared their thoughts, insights and in some cases sensitivities, on the AfCFTA. Some comments were accessed in real time and shared with delegates directly at the Forum, sparking discussion and calls to action.

An overwhelming 77% expressed strong confidence that the AfCFTA is an important step toward economic growth and prosperity for Africa. When asked about the most significant outcome of the AfCFTA, most respondents cited employment creation, economic development and integration, and increased market access. This reflects the clear promise the AfCFTA offers for advancing Africa’s socio-economic development and the attainment of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and highlights the importance of continuously engaging stakeholders.

Poll respondents revealed optimism for how the agreement would impact their own lives, help address corruption, improve analogue state systems, enhance the business environment, increase economic and employment opportunity, boost Africa’s services sector, address intra-border barriers, and alleviate poverty, among many other issues as captured below.

To build upon the success of the Forum and to officially close the online poll, The Rockefeller Foundation held a Twitter chat on Nov. 30th, again with the goal of listening to African citizens and providing a channel to make their voices heard by leaders in business, government, civil society, and academia.

More than 700 participants took part from Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa, Rwanda, and Ghana, sharing their thoughts on what actions should be taken by leaders in their respective countries. Most of the contributions spoke to issues of employment and food security, and rounding out the discussion was a focus on the difference the AfCFTA could make for small and medium-sized businesses, as well as education, last mile electrification, access to improved health services, transportation, market availability and accessibility, and commodity price control.

18 African governments have now ratified the AfCFTA Agreement. At the same time, responses to the poll and the ensuing Twitter conversation suggest Africa’s people are also optimistic that the agreement is a step in the right direction. Following the establishment of a Presidential Committee to assess the impact and readiness for the AfCFTA, Nigeria is expected to make an informed decision on whether to sign the Agreement later this month. The participatory and consultative efforts undertaken by the Nigerian government to look at all angles of the agreement and talk with stakeholders from across the spectrum of interests, has been a positive (and even underreported) example of the importance of consensus-building.

Nevertheless, what has become apparent is that it will take concerted efforts to draw in countries that still remain on the fence when it comes to the AFCFTA, by listening to their concerns and identifying practical solutions. The November trade Forum helped to demystify what the AFCFTA means to Africa’s people. ECA’s future Africa Trade Forums and efforts to support African countries to develop clear strategies to benefit from the agreement offer additional channels for ensuring that no African country is left behind by the AfCFTA in the spirit of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The next few weeks leading to the March deadline for ratification will be filled with action and anticipation. African citizens are engaged and looking for signs of progress. Many wonder why Africa doesn’t already have an agreement like the AfCFTA to support a strong African trading block, catalyze their economies and build on Africa’s development. Others point to the need to learn from the drawbacks and successes of Africa’s existing regional trading blocs. Whatever the side or position, it now seems pretty clear that the AfCFTA is on an Africa-led trajectory, moving along with grassroots inertia toward a conclusion. Countries now on the sidelines should seize the moment to shape the design and outcome of the AfCFTA before it passes them by.

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