African Free Trade Area Presents Opportunity and Obstacles Ahead - Global Trade Magazine
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  October 1st, 2021 | Written by

African Free Trade Area Presents Opportunity and Obstacles Ahead

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  • Last year’s economic contraction of 1% was the lowest ever witnessed in the region.
  • Opportunities for the region could be on the horizon in the form of the African Continental Free Trade Area.
  • More diversified economies fared relatively well through the pandemic and will have a strong economic recovery.

The African continent is on the cusp of long-term economic opportunity thanks to the inception of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which came into effect in January 2021. The AfCFTA could boost Africa’s growth potential as the agreement intends to liberalize trade across Africa over the next few years. It provides optimism for a region that has been hit hard by the pandemic.

The impact of the pandemic has been uneven across African economies, with some suffering from severe economic contractions, while others managed to record small growth rates. The post-pandemic outlook differs from country-to-country, but most are subject to high uncertainty due to the rise in infections and the slow vaccination process. In the long run, the AfCFTA could be pivotal in Africa’s growth potential as the agreement foresees fundamental freedom of trade in Africa in the next few years.

The agreement has the potential to accelerate African growth rates after the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent economic outlook report for the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) region from trade credit insurer Atradius.


Early optics reveal uneven results

While long-term results of the implementation of the AfCFTA, the immediate optics are not looking promising for most countries. Some challenges have to be overcome before the AfCFTA is successfully implemented and countries can reap the benefits. In the short run, protectionist tendencies, insufficient capacity to expand cross-border infrastructure, political instability and weak government finances, among other things hinder a full implementation of the agreement.

The AfCFTA’s full implementation has a long way to go, with several countries needing to first establish the necessary customs infrastructure and required procedures to trade. Countries that already have action plans and customs procedures in place, as well as relatively low barriers to trade with other African countries, will likely see success early on. So far, only Egypt, Ghana and South Africa have accomplished the necessary customs infrastructure. Countries that are likely to benefit the most are those with relatively open and diversified economies and well-established trade links, like South Africa. This also applies to other regional trading hubs such as Kenya, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire.

Economies emerge from harsh COVID effects

Last year’s economic contraction of 1% was the lowest ever witnessed in the region and was stark in comparison to average annual growth of 4.3% since 2010. COVID-19 hit African countries with a drop in trade, lower commodity prices, fewer tourist arrivals, lower remittances and lower foreign investments. Additionally, many countries introduced strict lockdowns in the beginning of the pandemic that hurt domestic economic activity.

Thankfully, 2021 has seen a recovery in the global economy and higher commodity prices, supporting the economic recovery in Africa. Economic growth is expected to reach 1.3% this year. A recovery that is quite moderate, especially in comparison to other regions in the world. Reasons for this are the limited room for government support and the slow vaccine distribution. Similar to other parts of the world, many African governments supported their economies resulting in high budget deficits and an increase in public debt. Now, many face high debt levels that will limit further support and even constrain public investments over the next few years. Therefore, many countries are not expected to return to their pre-pandemic growth figures. The economic outlook is also uncertain due the continued spread of COVID-19 coupled with the slow vaccination process.

Uneven recovery underway for Sub-Saharan Africa

While there is an economic recovery underway for SSA, it will be slow and mostly uneven throughout the region. Oil exporting countries, hit hard by the pandemic, like Nigeria and Angola, will see a particularly slow recovery. Small island economies dependent on tourism, like Mauritius, which recorded deep recessions last year will likely see one of the highest economic growth figures in Africa this year. However, this is still uncertain, as it depends on the expected gradual recovery in tourism.

The more diversified economies fared relatively well through the pandemic and will have a strong economic recovery. Countries such as Kenya, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire recorded a small contraction or even a positive economic growth last year and are among the top performers.

Opportunities for the region could be on the horizon in the form of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Although in the short term there is much to overcome, once it reaches full implementation on the longer term, it is set to benefit several African economies.

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Afke Zeilstra is a senior economist for Atradius