The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) should bring major economic benefits to African countries
Women and youth will not benefit automatically from these opportunities
Large companies will be the first beneficiaries of the free trade deal
Women make up a large part of the workforce and they can benefit
The challenge is how to turn women involved in small cross-border trade into meaningful traders
With the hopes of a continent-wide, African free trade area moving closer to becoming reality, one fundamental question posed was: How can we ensure that women and youth also benefit from the economic opportunities on offer?
There was general agreement that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) presented opportunities for increasing cross-border trade. Fifty-two countries have signed up to the agreement so far out of a possible total of 55.
These benefits, however, will not automatically benefit women traders and young people. One of the main challenges is that of scale. It will be easier, for instance, for businesses transporting container loads of goods, while women selling smaller amounts of products – often with only one or two bags of products to sell – face bigger obstacles.
Nevertheless, women could benefit from a clearer legal framework, helping them to move from subsistence to being traders in a meaningful sense.
As women make up the majority of the workforce in manufacturing, they could also benefit as the trade deal is expected to benefit labour-intensive industries. Those engaged in the services sector could also see more opportunities.
As far as the youth are concerned, speakers said it was important that African countries that had joined the free trade deal also signed up to an accompanying arrangement for free movement. This would benefit young people as many African countries have skills shortages and freedom of movement would allow them to avail of employment opportunities in neighbouring countries. In East Africa, the trade deal was expected to generate 2 million new jobs a year although the same number of people entered the jobs market in one country, Ethiopia, each year.
For the free trade deal to deliver the promised economic benefits, access to education is another significant factor, including, in some cases, training on how to take advantage of the opportunities on offer. This was especially true for women living in isolated rural areas. Speakers pointed out that the free trade area would not automatically reduce existing inequalities.
Despite the challenges, there was a lot of optimism about the deal. There has been high-level political commitment by African leaders and economic integration has already taken place. Examples include a single network for mobile telephony and shared visa procedures so tourists can now apply to visit African countries at the same time.
Free movement within the African continent will bring major benefits, especially for young people, as it will allow them to fill skills shortages in other countries.