African countries began officially trading under a new continent-wide free trade area on Friday, January 1, 2021 but experts view the New Year’s Day launch as largely symbolic with full implementation of the deal expected to take years.
The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) aims to bring together 1.3 billion people in a $3.4 trillion economic bloc that will be the largest free trade area since the establishment of the World Trade Organization.
Founded in 2018, backers say it will boost trade among African neighbours while allowing the continent to develop its own value chains. The World Bank estimates it could lift tens of millions out of poverty by 2035.
“There is a new Africa emerging with a sense of urgency and purpose and an aspiration to become self-reliant,” Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said during an online launch ceremony.
But obstacles – ranging from ubiquitous red tape and poor infrastructure to the entrenched protectionism of some of its members – must be overcome if the bloc is to reach its full potential.
Trade under the AfCFTA was meant to be launched on July 1, 2020, but was pushed back after COVID-19 made in-person negotiations impossible.
However, the pandemic also gave the process added impetus, said Wamkele Mene, secretary-general of the AfCFTA secretariat.
“COVID-19 has demonstrated that Africa is overly reliant on the export of primary commodities, overly reliant on global supply chains,” he said. “When the global supply chains are disrupted, we know that Africa suffers.”
Every African country except Eritrea has signed on to the AfCFTA framework agreement, and 34 have ratified it. But observers such as W Gyude Moore – a former Liberian minister who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development – say the real work begins now.
“I would be surprised if they can have everything set up within 24 months,” he told Reuters news agency. “For long-term success, I think we’ll need to look at how long it took Europe. This is a multi-decade process.”