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ECA/Boosting Intra-African Trade & Assessing Regional Integration in Africa: Experts met to take stock & chart the way forward for informed policies

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The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) successfully organised two Expert Group Meetings (EGMs) to assess progress in the implementation of the Boosting Intra-African Trade (BIAT) framework and its Action Plan and to review the 11th edition of the flagship report on Assessment of Regional Integration in Africa (ARIA-11). The twin events were held in a hybrid format. BIAT was convened in collaboration with the African Union Commission, while ARIA-11 was organized in collaboration with the African Union Commission (AUC) and the African Development Bank (AfDB). The EGMs brought together about 30 experts from the Regional Economic Commissions (RECs), the AUC, the AfDB, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), academia, civil society and the private sector.

The BIAT framework and its Action Plan, adopted by the African Union (AU) in 2012, aimed to address trade barriers through infrastructure development and other initiatives and to enhance Africa’s global trade position and promote sustainable socio-economic development. BIAT is divided into seven clusters on: (1) trade policy, (2) trade facilitation, (3) improving productive capacity, (4) trade-related infrastructure, (5) trade finance, (6) trade information, and (7) factor-market integration. BIAT tackles key challenges to boost intra-African trade by encouraging countries to prioritize regional trade, bringing the private sector to the table for trade policy decisions improving food products and services, simplifying trade regulations, reducing transit times, optimising border posts and integrating border management.
On the other hand, ARIA-11, under the theme « Delivering on the African Economic Community: Towards a Continental Customs Union and Common Market, » provides a futuristic view of Africa’s integration. It assesses progress made since the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area AfCFTA, aligning with the goals of the Abuja Treaty. The report examines the conditions necessary for the establishment of a continental customs union and common market, leveraging on the experiences of the RECs integration efforts.
Speaking to the local media at the end of the four-day workshop, Mr. Francis Ikome, Chief of the Regional Integration Section (RIS) of the ECA’s Regional Integration and Trade Division (RITD), put the two EGMs into perspective. He highlighted what Africa stands to gain from the implementation of the AfCFTA by being part of the integration process. Statistically, the AfCFTA is the largest free trade area in the world, encompassing 55 countries with a population of 1.3 billion and a combined GDP of about $3.4 trillion. In fact, the AfCFTA, adopted in 2018 as part of Agenda 2063, is a key initiative to accelerate Africa’s economic integration.
« Integration is an essential policy tool for Africa; it is crucial for Africa’s survival in the competitive global environment, given its fragmented economic space of over 55 states. Integration has been recognised since independence of African countries in the 1960s. The creation of the AfCFTA, a huge market of over 1.3 billion people, offers opportunities for industrialisation, value addition and structural transformation. This is a significant achievement in Africa’s long journey towards integration, » said Mr. Francis Ikome.
Despite the significant progress of the AfCFTA, BIAT remains limited and there is a lack of information on its domestication and implementation at regional and national levels. Experts at the EGM discussed the impact of the BIAT on intra-African trade flows, with Dr Mundia Kabinga, Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape Town, stating that a 13% growth in intra-African trade between 2012 and 2022 requires further analysis. Dr Joseph Baricako, Economic Affairs Officer at the ECA, praised the BIAT report but noted that it needed improvement. Prof. Garth le Pere, Visiting Professor at the University of Pretoria, emphasised that BIAT contributes to trade facilitation, improved trade performance, increased incomes, reduced unemployment and improved social welfare. African countries have significant potential for intra-trade driven by basic goods/services.
Curiously, Africa’s share of world exports is only 3%, indicating the need for increased intra-African trade and industrialisation. Currently, intra-African exports and imports are 17.8% and 14.6% respectively, far below the levels in Europe and Asia. Mr. Francis Ikome and Prof. James Thuo Gathii of Loyola University Chicago School of Law propose structural and financial adjustments to bridge this gap.
« Africa faces many barriers to integration, including infrastructure and financing issues. The BIAT framework, adopted 12 years ago, aims to address these barriers by focusing on trade infrastructure and other issues within its 7 pillars. The framework aims to improve intra-African trade by addressing these challenges and ensuring a smooth integration process. The data collected on the implementation of BIAT since 2012 provides valuable insights into its effectiveness, » suggested Mr. Francis Ikome.
« The meeting concluded that building on existing structures, rather than creating new ones, is the best way to achieve the objectives of a common market or customs union. Successes in the Central African region and in OHADA have been achieved through the convergence of commercial and company law regimes. Competition law can also be achieved at the continental level. Other examples include the East African, SADC, COMESA and ECOWAS communities, indicating that there is already significant activity in these areas. The report will reflect these findings in the future, » said Prof James Thuo Gathii, highlighting the legal perspective of ARIA-11.
In conclusion, Dr Brian Mureverwi, Senior Trade Advisor to the AUC, offered key takeaways in his engagement with the local media: “The outcome of the first session is to come up with another version of the BIAT Action Plan. We also need to come up with a framework document, which is ARIA-11, which will be taken to the Assembly of AU Heads of State and Government for endorsement in terms of how we are going to move towards the African Economic Community.”
Dr Brian Mureverwi underscored the role of the AUC in coordinating this process. As the Secretariat for the 55 Member States of the AU, the AUC typically gathers recommendations from experts, presents them for ministerial endorsement, and ultimately for the approval of the Heads of State and Government. This approach ensures collective ownership and implementation by the member States.
Participants paid a working visit to the to the Cameroon National Shippers’ Council (CNSC) at the end of the third day of the EGMS. Mr Stephen Karingi, Director of RITD/ECA, expressed his deep satisfaction during the visit, indicating that it served as a bridge between theory and practice, allowing participants to gain deep insights into Cameroon’s successful efforts in reaping the benefits of the AfCFTA implementation.
« During our visit to the CNSC, I was pleased to learn that a few years ago, Cameroon developed its AfCFTA National Implementation Strategy, which includes an institutional mechanism for countries to drive the AfCFTA agenda forward. The committee responsible for the implementation of the strategy is housed in the CNSC. Our discussion focused on the potential for Cameroon to take advantage of regional value chains in pharmaceuticals, textiles and the automotive sector, as Cameroon produces a lot of aluminum products and by-products…The visit was a unique opportunity to see how we can deepen and advance continental integration, and the practical experiences provided a clear demonstration of the value of our work, » declared Mr. Stephen Karingi.
Receiving the ECA delegation, Mr. Auguste Mbappe Penda, General Manager of the CNSC, testified to Cameroon’s leading role in promoting the implementation of the AfCFTA through sub-regional integration and intra-African trade in Central Africa: « We are honoured to receive such an important delegation from the ECA, AfDB and AU. Cameroon is doing quite well given its free access to the sea and its geographical proximity to countries like the Central African Republic, Chad and Nigeria, making it a central trading point in Africa. Cameroon was one of the first eight countries to ratify the AfCFTA and has already made its first imports and exports. We are working to improve intra-African trade, provide statistics for Central African countries and strengthen cooperation with partner institutions such as the ECA.”


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