In the alphabet soup of regional African trade blocs, will the AfCFTA ease the cost of doing business on the continent?
Ghana has been named the host of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) following four years of talks to form a 55-nation trade bloc. It will be the base for the AfCTA secretariat.
The opportunities for Africa with this new trade bloc are immense. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that the AfCFTA will create the world’s largest continental free-trade area, provided all 55 African Union (AU) members join, and has the potential to create an African single market of 1.2 billion consumers whilst eliminating about 90% of tariffs on goods over the next five years.
So far, 44 African countries have signed up for the historic agreement, the world’s largest free trade area since the formation of the World Trade Organization.
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The AfCFTA is expected to boost the economies of African countries through employment creation and the promotion of made-in-Africa goods. But Kayode Akindele, a partner at TIA Capital, a pan-African investment partnership focussed on credit-based investing across sub-Saharan Africa, is not opening up the bubbly just yet.
“We already have ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] which doesn’t seem to be working and so why don’t we sort that out first before we enter a continental trade agreement for Africa?”
And he is not alone in his concerns.
“There are other factors we need to also consider. Firstly, with the implementation of the AfCFTA, goods made in other continents could be disguised as made-in-Africa to qualify for duty free treatment. There could also be a reduction in government revenue and also this trade bloc also threatens the profitability and survival of infant industries,” says Vincent Acheampong, an economist based in the United Kingdom.
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Of the regional blocs in Africa, including EAC (East African Community) and SADC (Southern African Development Community), the ECOWAS has some way to go in terms of performance, according to Muda Yusuf, the Director General of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in an interview with CNBC Africa. But he believes there is still reason to be optimistic.
“A continental trading bloc is going to build on the success of the regional blocs like ECOWAS and other blocs across Africa. So, this integration is going to build on those blocs. In terms of performance, of course ECOWAS is the least performing because East Africa is doing very well and South Africa is doing far better also. But there is no perfect time for things like this, what is important is for us to get a conviction that economic integration will work for us and also if we can get our institutions to make it work,” says Yusuf.
Amongst the many challenges of the ECOWAS is its failure to implement its vision of a single currency, the ECO, which is part of its plans to make Africa a more integrated continent. That vision has been postponed several times by the 15-member group with the newest target date set for 2020 although most experts believe the date to be unrealistic.
The success of the AfCFTA requires not only a trade policy but also a manufacturing agenda, competition, industrial policies and property rights to work well according to Vera Songwe, the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, in a statement at the launch event that took place in Niamey, Niger.
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The ninth edition of the flagship Assessing Regional Integration in Africa report (ARIA IX) stipulates that AfCFTA’s success will be due to its ability to actually change lives, reduce poverty and contribute to economic development in Africa.
In support of the new trade bloc, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo pledged to donate $10 million to the AU to support the operationalization of the secretariat of the AfCFTA.
Although the AfCFTA will be economically transformative for Africa in the long-term, the immediate benefits will be restricted due to the macro-economic uncertainties of regional trade.
“Most African countries are currently not producing the goods and services that their neighbors import, as a result we do not trade a lot with each other. It is easier for an African country to trade with a country in Europe than a country that lies right next to it and these low levels of intra-African trade need to be addressed before we can reap the full benefits of the AfCFTA,” says Acheampong.