The tripartite negotiations are now concluding phase one which will cover core FTA issues of tariff liberalisation, rules of origin, customs procedures and simplification of customs documentation, transit procedures, non-tariff barriers, trade remedies and other technical barriers to trade and dispute resolution.
Facilitating movement of business persons within the region is being negotiated in parallel with the first phase.
Phase two, the last stage of the negotiations, is expected to start soon and will cover trade in services and trade-related issues such as intellectual property rights, competition policy and trade development and competitiveness.
According to the roadmap, all negotiations should be completed within 36 months. Thereafter, COMESA-EAC-SADC are expected launch a single FTA by 2016, building on the FTAs that are already in place.
It will also resolve the long-standing conundrum of overlapping membership, which has presented barriers for the three communities in their quest towards integration.
Technically, a country cannot belong to more than one customs union, yet the three communities have either already established or are working towards creating their unions.
The ultimate launch of the enlarged FTA will result in the three sub-regions coalescing into a single FTA with the goal of establishing a single Customs Union in the near future.
With the launch of the "grand" FTA now getting closer to becoming a reality, countries in eastern and southern Africa including Zimbabwe should ensure that they fully benefit from such an arrangement.
The creation of an enlarged market would promote the movement of goods and services across borders, as well as allowing member countries to harmonise regional trade policies to promote equal competition.
Removal of trade barriers such as huge export and import fees would enable countries to increase their earnings, penetrate new markets and contribute towards their national development.
However, like any other trade arrangement, the Tripartite FTA will bring its own challenges that need to be addressed. For example, less prepared nations are at risk of being swallowed economically by more powerful nations, as their local industries would suffer from the stiff trade competition from more rival firms in an open market. This competition may subsequently allow the more organised and developed nations to push weaker local firms out of business.
Hence, member states must smartly address such pertinent issues to fully benefit from the trade arrangement.
One way of addressing this could be by boosting the manufacturing sector to ensure it is able to compete and withstand pressure from outside firms.
Another option is value-addition to increase benefit from natural resources such as gold, diamonds and nickel.
Zimbabwe has already identified various measures that aim at accelerating economic development and preparing its industries to withstand stiff competition in an open market.
These measures are contained in the newly crafted Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (ZimAsset). Zim Asset is a Government blueprint that will guide economic transformation and development in Zimbabwe for the next five years, spanning October 2013 to December 2018.
It should be noted this is the same period in which the Tripartite FTA involving COMESA-EAC-SADC is to be launched, thus ZimAsset is also an important blueprint for the country in this context.
ZimAsset has identified four key priority clusters that will enable Zimbabwe to achieve economic growth and reposition the country as one of the strongest economies in the region and Africa.
These key priority clusters are food security and nutrition, social services and poverty reduction, infrastructure and utilities, and value addition and beneficiation.
Value addition in various sectors, among them mining, agriculture, infrastructure focusing on power generation, transport, tourism, information communication technology and enhanced support for small to medium enterprises, are the key drivers of any economic agenda. sardc.net
SANF is produced by the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC), which has monitored regional developments since 1985.