The director of regional integration and trade at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), Stephen Karingi, told an online group of journalists on 11 May 2020 that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) could help African economies recover from the impact of COVID-19.
“Boosting intra-African trade can serve as an alternative stimulus package for job creation, foreign exchange, industrial development and economic growth,” said Mr. Karingi.
He said if Africa had implemented agreements and frameworks such as the AfCFTA, Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Plan for Africa, the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, and the Accelerated Industrial Development for Africa plan, “our economies would have been more diversified, stronger, and less affected by COVID19.”
The trade expert noted, however, that “COVID-19 has proven that African countries can adapt and respond to demand.”
He cited, among others, the examples of South Africa where U-Mask has redirected its production from protective masks for mining and agriculture to that for medical respiratory masks, and Nigeria where the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure produced made in Nigeria ventilators.
An ECA report on the impact of COVID-19 on Africa states that between 300,000 and 3.3 million Africans could lose their lives as a direct result of the pandemic.
Therefore, given the urgent need for governments to focus efforts on protecting lives from COVID-19, the 1 July 2020 start date for trade under the AfCFTA has been moved to at least 1 January 2021.
Mr. Karingi said such delay offers a window of opportunity for creative thinking on how the AfCFTA can be reconfigured to reflect the new realities and risks of the 21st century, stating “this is needed to better position the African economy in the face of future adverse shocks emanating from novel viruses and climate change, among others.”
He emphasised the need to maintain the AfCFTA momentum and ambition that existed before COVID -19. This, he said, will enable Africa recover and build long-term resilience.
David Luke, Coordinator of the African Trade Policy Centre, reiterated the need for Africa to diversify its sources of supply chain, stating “even developed countries that depended on only one or two countries for critical parts of their supply chain are now talking about localising production.”
He noted that COVID-19 has shed light on the underdeveloped status of African supply and value chains and that supply chain diversification fits very well into the industrialisation agenda that Africa already has.
“We need to think creatively about how our existing development frameworks could be adapted to emerging opportunities generated by this crisis,” he underlined.
Mr. Karingi said COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of digital technologies and that “Member States should consider front-loading negotiations on e-commerce to coincide with the closely linked phase II negotiations of the AfCFTA.”
The webinar was part of a series of virtual press briefings organised by ECA in collaboration with the African Women in Media network to raise awareness on issues contained in a recently launched ECA report titled “COVID-19 in Africa: Protecting Lives and Economies”
Mr. Karingi told the journalists that they have a responsibility to “always remind our leaders” on continental commitments “so that they don’t remain just as treaties in the books but rather as agreements that are signed, ratified and implemented.”