Experts have called on African economies to embrace regional and continental integration to accelerate trade and strengthen economic growth across Africa.
They were speaking Monday at the African Economic Conference (AEC) in Kigali where over 700 participants including policymakers, academics, development partners and financiers from across Africa and beyond to discuss ways to accelerate progress in infrastructure integration, including the removal of barriers for movement of people goods and services across borders within Africa.
The meeting is being held under the theme; "Regional and Continental Integration for Africa's Development."
"Africa must not shy away from addressing the potential costs of integration. Regional and continental integration is not without costs. One of them is trade diversion, which displaces low cost products from non-members by higher cost products from the integrating countries," said Ahunna Eziakonwa, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Regional Director for Africa.
She added that if integration is inclusive, equitable and sustained, this could help overcome the current challenge of inequality in development outcomes within and between countries, and by age, gender and geography.
"Integration will not only lift people from poverty, it will also keep people out of poverty," Eziakonwa emphasized.
She said that eradicating poverty in all its forms for the 560 million Africans currently living in multidimensional poverty remains the primary goals of Africa's development through continental, sub-regional and national plans for bolstering growth, transformation and economic integration.
However, Claudine Uwera, Minister of State in Charge of Finance and Economic Planning said that the continent must integrate to consolidate past gains and maximize the benefit of globalization with a view of becoming a major player in the global arena as envisioned by the agenda 2063.
"Africa's integration is no longer a choice. It's a must for the continent and its people. To become a global player that it deserves to be, Africa should integrate speedily," she emphasized.
Uwera explained that the need for integration goes beyond the narrow economic view, it touches all sectors of life.
"I believe, we are at the right time, where the expressed political will and leadership exist. We should take advantage of this to implement faster and in the adequate way our continent's integration," She said.
Gabriel Negatu, Director General, East Africa Regional Development and Business Delivery office at the African Development Bank (AfDB) said that bank fully supports regional and continental integration.
"We are committed to continue supporting Africa's integration agenda for it will lead to sustained growth and allow the continent to withstand external pressures; enable African companies to grow and become global giants," he said.
Negatu said that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) that was signed in Kigali, Rwanda last year in March has the potential to drive unprecedented economic and structural transformation of the African continent.
"Regional integration is needed in Africa to sustain growth and build resilience to external shocks," he said.
According to Giovanie Biha, Deputy Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the success of continental economic integration depends on its benefits being shared equitably.
"It's time to ratify to ratify AfCFTA, the more ambition the liberalization, the higher will be the gains in terms of increase in GDP and exports," she said.
Estimates by the Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) indicate that AfCFTA has the potential to boost intra-African trade by eliminating import duties, and double trade - if non-tariff barriers are also reduced.
This will bring the continent's current intra-Africa trade number currently standing at 15% to 52.3% compared to 54% in the North America Free Trade Area, 70% within the European Union and 60% in Asia.
Once it goes into force, AfCFTA will bring together the continent's 55-member states of the African Union with a combined market of more than 1.2 billion people.
When it begins operation, it is billed to be biggest trading bloc in the world.