Free Trade Can Unleash Africa’s Economic Potential


Digital and physical infrastructure improvements have integrated economies across the world, facilitating international trade and boosting E-commerce in goods and services. In fact, between the 20th and 21st centuries, the number of people with less than $1.50 per day dropped significantly, which is partially a result of free trade becoming more popular throughout the world.

Unfortunately, Africa lagged behind other continents in terms of trade, and intra-African trade has remained low on the continent ever since. Nevertheless, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is the first step towards faster, inclusive, and broad-based economic growth. This article describes the rationale and the perceived benefits of the AfCFTA.

Free trade is a prerequisite for sustainable economic development. However, trade in Africa has been limited by barriers, poor infrastructure, low access to electricity, and cumbersome border procedures. The AfCFTA will help eradicate these challenges by creating a regional market with zero tariffs on over 97% of goods.  While the absence of political will has stifled intra-regional trade efforts in the past, several trade blocs emerged, sectioning off large parts of the African continent and making it difficult for countries to trade with each other.

The AfCFTA could help change all of this. The AfCFTA is part of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 flagship project, which is aimed at progressively eliminating tariffs and removing non-tariff barriers on intra-African trade, thus creating opportunities for African businesses. Now, 54 African Union (AU) member states have signed the AfCFTA (all AU members except Eritrea), showing that this legislation enjoys broad support.

Trade Between African Countries is Low

UNCTAD’s Economic Development in Africa Report 2019 found that total trade from Africa to the rest of the world averaged US $760 billion in 2015–2017. This is much lower than North America’s ($5,140 billion), Europe’s ($4,109 billion), and Asia’s ($6,801 billion) exports to the world.

Historically, African countries do not trade amongst themselves due to high tariffs, poor connectivity, and non-tariff barriers such as indiscriminate checks across land borders. UNCTAD finds that exports between African countries totaled 16.6% of total exports in 2017, compared with 68.1% in Europe, 59.4% in Asia, 55.0% in America, and 7.0% in Oceania.

The Case for Greater intra-Africa Trade

Although intra-African trade is not the only driver of economic development, it is important. It can facilitate industrialization and enable the continent’s small producers to become competitive by creating economies of scale and weeding out less productive firms (Kimenyi, Zenia, and Routman, 2016).

Furthermore, tariff-free trade can develop and strengthen value chains and facilitate the transfer of technology and knowledge spillovers. It can equally incentivize infrastructure development and attract foreign direct investment over the long run. As such, the AfCFTA is necessary to accelerate economic growth across the African continent. This is especially important for the continent’s many small, landlocked countries that face tremendous challenges trading internationally.

How will Africa benefit from the Continental Free Trade Area?

According to a World Bank report (2018), by 2035, the ratio of extreme poverty in Africa is projected to decline to 10.9% due to higher intra-regional trade. Full implementation of the AfCFTA could lift an additional 30 million people, or 1.5% of the continent’s population, out of extreme poverty (Kayumba,2019).

The same report finds that the agreement will accelerate regional integration and lower tariffs, which “could bring $3.6 billion in welfare gains” to the continent. There will equally be broad-based gains to industrialization and market access. Consumer welfare will increase by $1.4 billion and labor-intensive sectors will grow exponentially. For example, food processing will increase by 76%, light manufacturing by 61%, heavy manufacturing by 31%, and textiles by 18%.

Such growth has the potential to create millions of jobs, support the emergence of competitive industries, and insulate the continent’s value chains from exogenous shocks such as low commodity prices and geopolitical tensions. Furthermore, as countries develop unique competitive advantages, current account imbalances will gradually lessen, and the business sector will be able to create high-quality jobs.

Additionally, the AfCFTA will boost economic integration and enable countries to develop competitive advantages in different product and service categories while creating employment for Africa’s youth. The AfCFTA will equally support the African Union’s 2063 Agenda of “inclusive growth and sustainable development” and an “integrated continent.” (SDG Knowledge Hub, 2021).

How can we make the African Continental Free Trade Area Work?

1) Governments should implement sector-specific trade facilitation measures.

Lowering and eliminating tariffs will be the easiest way to make the AfCFTA effective. The hardest part will be enacting the non-tariff and trade facilitation measures. Trade facilitation measures will make verifying and implementing rules of origin easier. Governments should design and implement sector-specific trade facilitation measures to establish a transparent and predictable environment for cross-border trade transactions across the continent.

 This should be based on simple, standardized, and digitized custom procedures designed to ensure a faster harmonization of trade legislation across the continent.  

2) Better connectivity will support the implementation of the Continental Free Trade Agreement.

To lessen the adverse impact of poor infrastructure and connectivity issues, policymakers should prioritize investment in trade-heavy routes, ensuring that such improvements benefit local communities, consider environmental ramifications, and are integrated to facilitate cross-border trade.  Furthermore, Africa’s digital infrastructure needs further investment. Faster internet connectivity should be actively pursued to support e-commerce and trade-in services.

3) The continent should prioritize digitization to enable faster adoption of synchronized trade practices.

From the obtaining of export permits to the certification of goods and services and phytosanitary measures, a more digitized approach to trade will accelerate the implementation of the agreement and help integrate the continent. This should be accompanied by capacity building and a rigorous information campaign to better inform citizens on trade processes that will be made available under the AfCFTA.


The AfCFTA will bring untold benefits to African citizens, but its successful implementation is contingent on greater trade facilitation and harmonizing legislation across African countries. It will boost intra-regional trade and create sustainable and inclusive economic growth for African countries over the long run.

However, while the agreement’s benefits are numerous, African member states must focus on implementing the deal, removing bottlenecks, and facilitating intra-regional trade. Doing that will support sustained and inclusive economic growth, faster poverty eradication, and industrialization. While the agreement is the first step towards a unified market with lower tariff and non-tariff barriers, it is imperative to prioritize trade facilitation measures and accelerate the implementation of the AfCFTA.

Reference List

  1. Kayumba. C. (2019). AfCTA Opportunities, Challenges and Adaptability Across Africa: A Policy Brief.
  2. Maliszewska, M., & Ruta, M. (2020). The African Continental Free Trade Area: Economic and Distributional Effects. World Bank Group
  3. Kimenyi. M. S. Zenia A. L and Routman. B. (2016). Introduction: Intra-African Trade in Context, Brookings Africa Growth Initiative. Brookings Institute, United States.
  4. Sustainable Development Goals, Knowledge Hub. (2021). African Continental Free Trade Area Completes First Month of Trading. Accessible here
  5. World Bank. (2020). The African Continental Free Trade Area. World Bank, Washington DC.
  6. CEN-SAD: Community of Sahel Saharan States, Ecowas: Economic Community of West African States, SADC: South African Development Community, AMU: Arab Maghreb Union, EAC: East African Community

A version of this article first appeared in Cameroon Business Today.

Henri Kouam

Henri Kouam is the President and Founder of the Cameroon Economic Policy Institute.

Henri Kouam is the President and Founder of the Cameroon Economic Policy Institute.