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Africans must explore opportunities in digital trade

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Africans must explore opportunities in digital trade

— African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat Chief Wamkele Mene
Kingsley Ighobor
From Africa Renewal: 
14 July 2020
Trucks at border between Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire.
Nyani Quarmyne/IFC
New technologies and business models are creating a mass market for affordable, accessible financial services in Africa. I ©Nyani Quarmyne/IFC

The Secretary-General of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat Wamkele Mene would like Africans to take advantage of the opportunities in digital trade because Africa is “one of the fastest-growing penetrations of mobile subscribers in the world.”

“Digital trade is possible through mobile phones. We know, from the experiences of various countries across Africa, that you can access distant markets using your mobile phone,” Mr. Mene told Africa Renewal in an exclusive interview.

He added: “It is a question of leveraging all those technological innovations and advantages into a common platform for free trade in Africa, under the AfCFTA agreement.”

Already, women traders in countries such as Kenya and Nigeria are applying digital solutions in informal trade. The AfCFTA, he explained, intends to establish the requisite regulatory environment and architecture, through laws and digital platforms.

“We need to find a way to digitize our customs capabilities to make them seamless across the continent. It is going to take quite a lot of work, but I believe it’s possible.”

Mr. Mene is optimistic about the potential impact of free trade on African countries’ economies. He anticipates a successful implementation of the free trade agreement.

“This agreement will be a shining example of how a trade agreement is negotiated in a way so it has strong development features and onboards the segments of society that have been historically left behind,” he said.

The 1st July 2020 commencement date for free trade in Africa has been postponed following the outbreak of COVID-19. Mr. Mene said African leaders will soon announce a new date.

“All Africans, including me, see this [AfCFTA] as an opportunity to turn a new page on Africa’s economic development and growth trajectory. This is an opportunity that is unprecedented. In fact, I think that since the end of colonialism, Africa has not had such a big opportunity.

High expectations

Acknowledging the high expectations that people on the continent have of the Secretariat, Mr. Mene said he wants Africa to succeed and the trade agreement to have a long-term impact.

However, Mr. Mene cautioned, that, “success is not going to happen overnight, saying the same way that market integration in Europe happened over 50 years, in Africa it will also take some time.

“I think what is being celebrated is the fact that Africa has reached this point where we are moving rapidly towards an integrated market,” he said, adding that economic dislocations resulting from COVID-19 could be mitigated by a robust implementation of the AfCFTA. “As you know, many countries in Africa do not have the monetary policy space or the fiscal policy space to provide large bailouts that go in the trillions and trillions of dollars for economic recovery.

“Therefore, for Africa, the stimulus package is the AfCFTA, the implementation of this agreement. This is what will enable Africa to drive economic growth and economic development post COVID-19, by increasing intra-Africa trade,” he said.

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