Eastern and southern African leaders are meeting in Kampala, Uganda this week to review the socio-economic situation in the region in an effort to promote deeper integration among member states.
The 16th Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Heads of State and Government Summit set for 23-24 November is being held under the theme "Enhancing Intra-COMESA Trade through MSMEs Development".
Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) have been identified as an important conduit through which the region can spur development, reduce poverty, create jobs and wealth, as well as improve the quality of life.
According to COMESA, MSMEs contribute over 50 percent of employment in eastern and southern Africa.
However, MSMEs continue to face various challenges in their efforts to trade with other countries in the region. These include cumbersome documentation requirements, stringent standards and inefficient road and rail networks that cause time delays and increase the cost of intra-regional trade.
The COMESA Summit is, therefore, expected to come up with various ways of improving the sector so that it can contribute to the socio-economic growth of the region.
Some COMESA member states have already started implementing measures to promote bilateral trade involving MSMEs.
For example, Zimbabwe and Malawi launched the COMESA Simplified Trade Regime (STR) in October that allows cross border traders to import and export goods below US$1,000 duty free.
The COMESA STR is a system that removes duty for cross border traders, trading in products that originate in member countries.
It is implemented on a bilateral basis and reduces paperwork required for customs formalities, making it easier for cross-border traders to benefit from the COMESA FTA, which was launched in 2000.
Other issues on the COMESA summit agenda include the status of the implementation of the tripartite agreement involving COMESA, the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), as well as how to respond to the challenge of climate change.
At their historic Tripartite Summit in Uganda in October 2008, COMESA-EAC-SADC approved a plan to set up an enlarged Free Trade Area encompassing 26 members in the respective regions.
Significant progress has been made to-date towards the launch of the so-called "Grand" Free Trade Area, with the legal and institutional structures for FTA negotiations already put in place.
The Legal and Institutional Framework has been agreed through a Tripartite Memorandum of Understanding on Inter-Regional Cooperation and Integration signed by COMESA, EAC and SADC, that came into force on 19 January 2011.
Formally known as the Tripartite Free Trade Area, the proposed FTA is expected to bolster intra-regional trade by creating a wider market, increased investment flows, enhanced competitiveness and the development of cross-regional infrastructure.
The integrated market would comprise a combined population of almost 600 million people and a total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of about US$1 trillion.
This would open borders to literally half of the continent, spanning the entire southern and eastern regions of Africa - from Cape to Cairo.
The "Grand" FTA is within the framework of establishing an African Economic Community and the overall African Union Vision and Strategy presented in the 1980 Lagos Plan of Action and the Abuja Treaty of 1991.
With regard to climate change, eastern and southern Africa is set to discuss, among other things, the outcome of the recent United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as well as the forthcoming climate change meeting scheduled for Qatar in December.
The Rio+20 summit failed to produce a binding international agreement on sustainable development, and instead came up with the "The Future We Want" declaration, which many say lacks the political will to address emerging challenges such as hunger and climate change.
Leaders from eastern and southern Africa are, therefore, expected to chart the way forward with regard to how the region responds to the issue of sustainable development.
One way that has been identified to deal with such issues is the Tripartite Agreement for the Implementation of the Programme on Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation in eastern and southern Africa signed in July 2012.
The five year Programme on Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation in eastern and southern Africa aims to address the impacts of climate change through adaptation and mitigation actions aimed at building socio-economic resilience of communities through Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA).
The programme is also intended to increase investments in climate-resilient and carbon-efficient agricultural practices and strengthen linkages between agriculture, forestry, and other land uses; and renewable energy practices in COMESA-EAC-SADC member/states.
At the summit, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is expected to take over the COMESA chair from Malawian President Joyce Banda.