OPINION: We must use the African Free Trade Agreement to boost economies

by Dr. Rania Al-Mashat | @RaniaAlMashat | Egypt Ministry of Investment and International Cooperation
Monday, 17 January 2022 16:15 GMT

A view of construction work at the newly constructed section of a new axis and bridge of Hasaballah El-Kafraway in Zahraa El Maadi to connect the ring road in the district of Maadi, Cairo, Egypt November 24, 2021. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Africa has always been a continent of vast potential. To unlock it, we should be focusing on collaborations, knowledge and technology exchanges between African states.

Dr. Rania Al-Mashat, Minister for International Co-operation, Egypt

While Africa may be facing the sharp end of both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the ravages of climate change, the continent is no stranger to a challenge. Through even the most difficult of times, it has found a way forward. As it has had to. But doing this in today’s rapidly evolving socioeconomic climate requires an unprecedented push towards sustainable development.

Given the global threat posed to the health of both the public and the planet that we all face today, there is, perhaps now more than ever, more that unites us than divides us. Yet we are still too fragmented in our approaches to tackling the major challenges of our time, from vaccine equity to digital infrastructure development and access to clean energy and water.

This should not be the case.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the African continent. Divided we will continue to struggle uphill. United, we can level the playing field and unleash the true economic potential that has lain dormant in Africa for too long.

This can be achieved by linking major roads and railways, developing new renewable energy projects and activating the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). By addressing and structuring the role of the local private sector in advancing sustainable development, and by creating jobs that empower African women and youth with the knowledge and skills they require to take control of a changing world.

Africa has always been a continent of vast potential. To unlock it, we should be focusing on collaborations, knowledge and technology exchanges between African states and its international partners. Doing so will enable us to forge a more resilient future.

By investing in and tapping into the African labour force, the international community can simultaneously help to bridge economic gap while expanding the growth of other nations across the world. According to the UN World Population Prospects, Africa is estimated to represent half of the world’s future labour force as of 2050.

The AfCFTA regional market is a major opportunity to empower African countries to diversify their exports, accelerate growth, and attract foreign direct investment (FDI). It would also help bolster the continent's resilience in responding to any shocks that might arise.

Then there’s the negotiations for an e-commerce protocol addition to the AfCFTA. This presents a unique space for African countries to harmonise their digital economy regulations and leverage its benefits. This falls under the umbrella of digital trade, which involves digitally enabled or digitally ordered cross-border transactions in goods and services which can be digitally or physically delivered.

This point was a common thread that ran through the “Egypt – International Cooperation Forum (ICF): Engaging for Impact”. Workshops held at the event explored the prospects and challenges of digital trade for Africa’s private sector. They highlighted ways the AfCFTA is addressing digital trade constraints, and how it is acting to accelerate the private sector’s participation in digital trade, by making trade more diverse and inclusive of SMEs.

The Egypt-ICF also looked at ways regulators and private sector partners plan to tackle the exchange of data, including across borders, amplifying concerns about use and misuse of data, privacy protection, digital security, intellectual property protection, regulatory reach, competition policy and industrial policy.

To further scale-up Africa’s social and economic development, triangular cooperation and South-South cooperation will be a critical driver of progress. By facilitating access to technical and financial resources, promoting knowledge and technology transfers, South-South cooperation can help bridge the technological gap between the North and South.

As a continent we are realising the tangible and intangible benefits of South-South cooperation is revitalising trade. It is improving livelihoods, contributing to the self-reliance and wellbeing of citizens, creating new jobs and investment opportunities.

The recommendations outlined in the Cairo Communiqué – delivered at the conclusion of the Egypt-ICF – reaffirm the role of the AfCFTA and South-South cooperation in boosting growth and the integration of African economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The recommendations emphasize the need to finalise negotiations relating to the enactment of an e-commerce protocol as a guiding tool to harmonise data regulations, facilitate cross-border digital trade, and enable digital taxation on e-commerce, which would eventually foster an inclusive economic recovery, as youth, women and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are the key beneficiaries of formalising digital trade in Africa.

These recommendations were also endorsed by the United Nations Economic and Social Council, whose president, Ambassador Collen Vixen Kelapile, emphasised that the suggestions be included on international agendas in the decade of action.

As we saw at the Egypt-ICF, Egypt is the gateway to Africa – a role it has played for many years. Egypt’s symbiotic relationship with the African continent presents an example of the deep partnerships that can be replicated and forged across the continent to help accelerate growth, increase Africa’s global economic competitiveness, and develop the continent’s infrastructure.

Today, as Africa finds a unified voice to promoting change and advance its socioeconomic development, it’s critical to remember that no country, state or continent, no matter its size or resources, can achieve this alone. It’s a collective effort, and we are all – as we have been reminded so often in the last two years marked by a global response to a virus – in it together.