17 June 2019

Africa: AfCFTA - Calls Grow to Bridge Information Gap

Awareness among citizens and traders about the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement and ways to make the most of the deal may not be at ideal levels to have maximum benefit when it takes effect.

The framework is set to officially be launched during the African Union Summit in Niamey, Niger in July.

The agreement is ready for implementation having received 52 signatories and 24 ratifications. It required 22 ratifications in order to be enter into effect.

The AfCFTA operationalisation will make the bloc the largest free trade area in the world.

However, experts say that the impact of the development will be among other things dependent on the level of awareness about the opportunities it presents, ways to be compliant with requirements, existing markets, goods on demand and profit margins, among others.

The increase of information, they said, would among other things likely see businesses adjust their models and approaches to target multiple markets.

Several producers and exporters who spoke to The New Times said they were aware of the existence of the agreement but were not sure of aspects such as its operationalisation, standard requirements, most preferential markets for them, and existing opportunities.

Vestine Umutoni, a producer and exporter of handicrafts and African themed clothes, said that she is aware of the agreement and the benefits it holds but is not sure on how best she and her partners could position themselves to make the most of it.

"What we know is that we will be able to trade across the African continent without being taxed to enter a majority of the markets. However, we need information on the status of markets, goods in demand, level of competition, standards requirements, among others," she said.

Private Sector Federation said that, going forward, a lot needs to be done to ensure that traders have adequate information.

Stephen Ruzibiza, the Chief Executive of PSF, said that there has been progress in raising awareness but more can be done.

"True, some section of the traders are yet to know the details of the agreement. However, information is out there. People know programmes like local sourcing-where we encourage companies, say hotels, to buy from local, instead of importing from outside the continent. This is not to say that, we are there yet. No, a lot needs to be done and so shall be done," he said.

Other stakeholders and business experts say that now that the agreement has been ratified by the minimum required number of countries, it's time to ensure that traders make the most of the opportunity to drive up intra-African trade.

Speaking over the weekend at the Eisenhower Fellowship meet, Emery Rubagenga, a Rwandan businessman with stakes in multiple ventures and a Board Member of Young Presidents' Organisation, said relevant stakeholders ought to drive up awareness about the opportunities presented AfCFTA.

The AfCFTA could use trade information portals to show opportunities of goods on demand in various African countries, standard requirements as well as existing value chains in those markets.

Other interventions necessary for the success of the trade agreement also include payment systems to facilitate trade settlement in local currencies, which would be a vital boost to intra-regional trade.

Sandra Uwera, the Chief Executive of the COMESA Business Council, said that the operationalisation of the pact will, among other things, see firms adjust their business models to target more than one country as most firms currently do.

Uwera, who was also speaking at the Eisenhower Fellowship meet said that at the onset of the AfCFTA draft process, private sector players did not play a prominent role but noted that trade information is one of the most key prerequisites for them to take the lead in implementation.

Andrew Mold, the acting Director for Eastern Africa at United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, allayed fears that the agreement could see infant industries in various countries stifled by imports but noted that there are provisions to protect industries.

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