Business leaders shared their views on the widely anticipated African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) at a seminar hosted on 27 May by the African Development Bank at its headquarters in Abidjan.
The seminar was attended by dozens of entrepreneurs and opened by a panel, including Stefan Nalletamby, the Bank's director of financial sector development and Anabel Gonzalez, Costa Rica's former Minister of Foreign Trade.
Gonzalez said trade wars and new technology had created a global landscape where the rules were "increasingly fragmented in competing spheres of influence." She cited current international trade disputes as an example of the turbulent status quo.
"In this global scenario, the AfCFTA becomes all the more important for growth," said Gonzalez, who helped to attract more than 140 investment projects in just four years, implemented six free trade agreements and led her country's campaign to join the OECD group of industrialized nations between 2010 and 2014.
The AfCFTA is expected to transform Africa into the world's largest trade zone. For Nalletamby, the accord is a way to close the trade gap between African and other regions, and attract a further $35 billion in revenues.
"There is a need for a stronger understanding of what the AfCFTA is and what it is not ... On our part, the Bank will continue to leverage our financial skills and expertise with the African Union," Nalletamby said.
The African Development Bank has invested in projects to further the aim of regional integration, including improvements to the Abidjan-Lagos highway, 460MW of power over the last 5 years and roads stretching over 2,500 km.
"A strong understanding of the AfCFTA means our ability to build on it and construct new trade plans that fortify economic prosperity for the private sector," said Andoh Mensah, manager in the Bank's trade division.
Parfait Kouassi, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Côte d'Ivoire, said opening up the continent's borders offered a tantalizing opportunity to capture a bigger market. But that also came with challenges, such as the different cultures and ways of doing business in the various regions.
"Today's seminar with the private sector, with government and with the Bank bears witness to the willingness of the Bank to prepare your enterprises to meet the challenges of this regional integration," Kouassi said.
Asked what she had learnt about trade agreements during her time as a minister, Gonzalez said: "The more involvement from private sector early in the process, the more opportunities."
Costa Rica witnessed an investment surge from the 1990s. Foreign direct investment in the country hit a record high of $958.70 million in the first quarter of 2013, after decades of promoting investment through free trade zones.