A Historical Overview of the Establishment of AfCFTA – Zimbabwe Situation

Source: Tracing the journey: A historical overview of the establishment of the AfCFTA

The search for a viable path to socioeconomic development has underpinned the various efforts towards regional integration in Africa. Indeed, from the early 1960s to the beginning of the twenty-first century, political and bureaucratic elites in Africa such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Nigeria’s Adebayo Adedeji, South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, among others, Recognized and supported the imperative of a regional approach to restructuring Africa’s political economy.

Over the past decades, Africa has implemented various programs and strategies at both the regional and continental levels to achieve a unified and integrated continent. The Regional Economic Communities (RECs), consisting of eight recognized organizations, have been established to enhance interaction, trade and investment among African countries. The Lagos Plan of Action and the Final Act of Lagos, developed in 1980, focused on socio-economic development, self-reliance, industrialization and regional integration. Furthermore, the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) launched in 2001 and the African Union’s Constitution Act in 2002 emphasized regional integration for Africa’s socio-economic transformation and renaissance. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is an important milestone in Africa’s regional integration journey, which has its roots in the Abuja Treaty. These efforts highlight Africa’s recognition of regional integration as a viable framework for addressing development challenges, fostering unity and fostering social harmony.

Currently, the African Union, responsible for overseeing 54 member states, actively advocates for the implementation of policies and legal frameworks to combat poverty and inequality. These initiatives aim to economically empower youth, women and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) at both the national and regional levels. The African Union’s declaration of 2023 as the “Year of the AfCFTA” and their emphasis on expediting the implementation of the AfCFTA reflect their commitment to inclusive and sustainable development in Africa.

The establishment of AfCFTA is of great importance in the 21st century. In 2012, the African Union adopted the Plan of Action for Promoting Intra-African Trade (BIAT), which identified seven areas of action. Trade policy emerged as a significant challenge, including the absence of a continental framework for intra-regional trade facilitation, high tariffs among African Union member states, overlapping membership in RECs, and limited export diversity. In response, AU Heads of State and Government adopted Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want during its 24th General Assembly in January 2015. This shared framework envisions inclusive growth and sustainable development in Africa over the next fifty years, with the AfCFTA serving as an Flagship project to significantly increase intra-African trade and leverage it as a driving force for growth and development. There is a specific target of doubling intra-Africa trade by 2022 through comprehensive and firm measures to address the continuing challenges.

The original vision outlined in the Abuja Treaty envisaged that the Regional Economic Community (REC) would achieve economic integration and establish a customs union by 2017. However, this goal was not fully realized. As a response to this shortfall, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was conceived with the aim of consolidating existing free trade agreements (FTAs) into a unified pan-African FTA.

Yet, it is important to note that the AfCFTA is not the culmination of efforts but the beginning of a journey. At present, negotiations on trade in goods and services as well as settlement of disputes have been completed. The second phase of ongoing talks focuses on investment, competition policy, intellectual property rights and e-commerce. The broad scope of the AfCFTA negotiations, which go beyond traditional World Trade Organization (WTO) issues, indicates that the agreement goes beyond a mere trade deal. It is deeply rooted in the concept of regional development and has the potential to deliver wide-ranging benefits.

Keeping in mind the main target groups (women, SMEs and youth) for AfCFTA implementation

The agreement establishing the AfCFTA recognizes the importance of enhancing the export capacity of both formal and informal service providers, with a special focus on micro, small and medium-sized enterprises that actively involve women and youth . It is necessary to highlight that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is much more than just a trade agreement. It is a development tool that aims to lift 100 million African people out of poverty, including women and youth, by 2035. Given that Africa is the youngest continent, the AfCFTA has significant potential for their economic advancement and also presents an opportunity to harness their talents. Young Africans and women, so as to enable inclusive gains. With the theme of 2023, expectations are high, as it aligns with the vast business opportunities for women-led enterprises. This will unlock the potential for African women to expand their businesses from small scale to large scale operations.

AFCFTA Protocol on Women in Business in AfCFTA – What can the Protocol provide?

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) seeks to integrate informal and micro/small enterprises into continental markets by removing barriers to entry into advanced regional and international markets. This initiative is especially important for women, who make up 70% of informal cross-border trade in Africa. With the AfCFTA, women will have better access to regional export destinations, allowing them to expand their businesses to overseas markets.

The AfCFTA achieves this by lowering tariffs and simplifying trade rules for small traders, making it more cost-effective for informal traders to operate through formal channels. It helps protect women involved in cross-border trade from vulnerabilities such as harassment, violence, confiscation of goods and imprisonment. Additionally, efforts are being made to address data collection challenges, ensuring that women’s business activities are accurately recorded in the national accounting system and regional statistical databases.

The overarching goals of the AfCFTA are to enhance competitiveness, promote industrial growth through diversification and development of regional value chains, and promote sustainable socio-economic development and structural transformation. Small and medium-sized enterprises will benefit from better access to supply inputs, enabling them to contribute to larger regional companies exporting to global markets. For example, specific initiatives are being taken to link women agricultural workers with opportunities to export food products to international markets, providing significant benefits to women in the process.

Africa is taking important steps towards achieving Aspiration 6 of Agenda 2063, which focuses on a people-driven continent that harnesses the potential of African women and youth, prioritizing the well-being of children. These efforts are being done in conjunction with the African Union’s initiative to enhance science and technology skills, develop the blue economy, improve infrastructure and promote manufacturing and high-growth sectors.

Aspiration 6 serves as a foundation for the economic empowerment of African women, ensuring full participation and ownership of businesses in all domains. This empowerment not only contributes to innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives but also aligns with the African Union’s Strategy for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE). GEWE particularly emphasizes the need for economic empowerment of women under Pillar One (I), which focuses on maximizing economic outcomes and opportunities.

As negotiations on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) continue, it is expected that key issues relating to free trade will be resolved. This includes e-commerce negotiations that cover operational aspects and use of digital tools, such as data protection, cross-border data flows, cybercrime laws and taxation of cross-border e-commerce. While the AfCFTA is a continental agreement, its implementation will be primarily at the national level, requiring reference to domestic realities. The needs and leadership of women in these negotiations are critical to achieving gender equality and inclusion objectives.

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) serves as a catalyst for women’s empowerment, especially after the announcement of the new decade of women’s financial and economic inclusion from the year 2020 to 2030. The declaration reaffirmed the commitment of African leaders to enhance gender inclusion for sustainable development at the national, regional and continental levels.

To fully harness the exponential potential of women in Africa, it is essential to implement purposeful gender-sensitive economic policies, establish a conducive business environment and demonstrate political commitment to gender mainstreaming in AfCFTA national strategies. Additionally, it is important to address the aspect of financial inclusion. Many women are currently excluded from the formal financial sector due to factors such as income level, volatility, location, type of activity, or level of financial literacy. Strengthening financial services and providing opportunities for capacity building will ensure that women can benefit from better access to financial resources and support.

Finally, it is important for young people, SMEs and women to actively engage and advocate for their interests in order to drive the agenda and exert pressure on policy makers. Despite being a continental agreement, the successful implementation of the AfCFTA largely depends on actions taken at the national level. The true measure of progress lies not only in the endorsement of the Protocol in Addis Ababa or Ghana, but also in the concrete actions and commitments made by individual states.

Frida Frans is a Namibian regional integration expert, with a Master’s degree in Governance and Regional Integration from the Pan African University in Cameroon.

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