The African Union Commission recently stated that the AfCFTA would lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty. Esther Tankou, Head of the Information Division at the African Union, has suggested this will happen, in part, because the AfCFTA will ensure that women working in small and medium enterprises, the rural sector, and in industry, will reap the benefits of the free trade area.
While such statements sound nice, more must be done to ensure that women realise such benefits. The AfCFTA has announced that they will be adopting a Protocol on Women and Youth which, according to the African Union website, is “expected to address the specific constraints and barriers women face when trading on the continent.” This is a great development, but the Protocol needs to be correctly structured to have a meaningful impact on the women it’s intended to help.
A fantastic article by Gerhard Erasmus, professor of law at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, dives into how the AfCFTA can protect female traders.
Erasmus states that the AfCFTA in its original format will not be able to help the many female, informal traders because the agreement primarily deals with trade-in-goods in the context of a rules-based free trade area. The fact that many women in Sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in informal trade can make matters challenging for policymakers. How can the trade that these women engage in be regulated under the AfCFTA?
First, Erasmus argues that the practices these women engage in need to be seen as legitimate so that they can be given the same protection formal traders are afforded. Incredibly, it has been estimated that about 90 percent of African women work in informal employment, indicating that a substantial number of female traders are also part of the informal economy. Erasmus argues that it would be wise for the AfCFTA to adopt a ‘Simplified Trade Regime’ (STR) that would simplify the procedures for clearing goods through Customs, benefitting small-scale traders, and informal female traders, as a result.
An STR has already been implemented in Sub-Saharan Africa (in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa – COMESA) indicating that a continent-wide STR would likely find success. COMESA implemented an STR-scheme in 2016 and the cost and time it takes to clear goods has been reduced. In addition, it seems as if cases of harassment and the improper seizures of goods have also been reduced.
Erasmus also notes that because the AfCFTA will ultimately be implemented by the various State Parties (the AfCFTA has no supra-national body), the Protocol on Women and Youth should contain detailed obligations for various State Parties to make it easier to expect specific outcomes and improvements to occur. Erasmus writes:
“This will require follow-up action between and among the State Parties in order to make it easier for women traders to import goods from neighboring markets and to sell them locally. These actions should address trade facilitation issues, non-tariff barriers (NTBs), technical and safety standards, corruption, and customs administration arrangements in particular.”
Finally, women face a myriad of other problems that must be addressed over time. An inability to access finance, a lack of knowledge about their rights, being forced to pay bribes to customs officials; all of these constraints that women face make it difficult for long-term growth to develop across the region. Encouraging State Parties to begin to make headway against these nefarious forces will allow female entrepreneurs to thrive under the free trade area.
The AfCFTA is undoubtedly a fantastic development for Africa. However, despite the long list of benefits it is supposed to usher in, the various protocols that the AfCFTA adopts will have a meaningful impact on the effect of the trade area on individual Africans. The Protocol on Women and Youth is a great place to start, let’s hope the AfCFTA officials get it right.
Alexander Jelloian is the Research and Project Manager at the Initiative for African Trade and Prosperity.