Trade and Investment

How implementation committees are moving the African free trade area from talks to action 

The African Continental Free Trade Area: Above view of Durban harbour, South Africa

A fully implemented African Continental Free Trade Area will transform economies. Image: WEF/iStockphoto

Million Habte
Coordinator, AfCFTA National Implementation Committees, AfCFTA Secretariat
Dirk Willem te Velde
Director, International Economic Development, ODI
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Trade and Investment

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  • A fully implemented African Continental Free Trade Area will transform economies and be a catalyst for further changes.
  • National Implementation Committees have crucial functions for the AfCFTA and there is good momentum on NICs throughout Africa.
  • The role of the private sector in the implementation of the AfCFTA is also critical to its success.

A fully implemented African Continental Free Trade Area would transform economies, raise African gross domestic product by 9% and reduce poverty by 50 million. It could also be a catalyst for further changes and attract investment from within Africa and beyond. However, these benefits depend on finalising the negotiations, which, compared with the case for other trade agreements, have gained much momentum – and, crucially, on the full implementation of all the provisions and associated instruments.

Have you read?

There are roles for both the public and the private sectors. We first discuss the role of the African public sector in implementing the AfCFTA through the formation and operation of National Implementation Committees (NICs), based on a new AfCFTA–ODI paper. We will then discuss the role of private sector action to support the AfCFTA, following recent WEF meetings and publications on the AfCFTA. There is much scope for aligned action to make a change in implementation this year.

Africa's year of implementation

The Assembly of the African Union (AU), the highest governing body, has recognised 2023 as the year of accelerated implementation of the AfCFTA. Also, in line with the decision of the 31st Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly, held on July 1-2, 2018 in Nouakchott, Mauritania, AU member states committed to set up NICs to facilitate the implementation of the Agreement. A new AfCFTA Secretariat-ODI paper identifies appropriate institutional forms for NICs as well as 10 core functions for such committees to be effective. It also outlines five elements in an AfCFTA template for effective NIC formation and operation.

There is much momentum around NICs throughout Africa. Some NICs have been in existence since early on – from around the time the agreement came into force (e.g. Ghana, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire) – and have collaborated with the private sector to make trade under AfCFTA rules a reality (matchmaking and certification for the Guided Trade Initiative, or GTI, in Ghana), developed monitoring and evaluation systems (Nigeria), or engaged in high-profile public events (Côte d’Ivoire).

Other NICs have only just been approved in law (e.g. Democratic Republic of Congo, Tunisia, Comoros). Yet other African countries still need to catch up and seek guidance. Some already have appropriate structures in place (Senegal, South Africa).

Based on the experiences of active NICs, we identify 10 crucial NIC functions:

1. Support the formulation of country positions in trade negotiations (involving coordination across ministries and complementing existing trade negotiation structures).

2. Facilitate implementation, and advise and lobby government around policy reform and domestication of the AfCFTA trade and complementary instruments (coordination across ministries) in line with existing structures to implement trade and development policy.

3. Develop plans and strategies.

4. Report on activities and plans, and monitor and evaluate the activities of the NIC itself.

5. Monitor and evaluate policies and projects to support AfCFTA implementation and relevant AU-related objectives, such as the trade and development aspirations in the AU’s Agenda 2063.

6. Coordinate and implement donor activities and capacity-building events in the area of the AfCFTA and development (covering trade and other instruments) in line with existing implementation structures.

7. Raise awareness and collaborate with all stakeholders (communication).

8. Enable meaningful collaboration with the private sector (certification, readiness assessments) to ensure economic benefits of the AfCFTA.

9. Ensure inclusiveness: include mainstream vulnerable groups, gender and youth in AfCFTA implementation plans.

10. Provide an interface between the AfCFTA Secretariat and State Parties.

While there are common functional requirements, each country will need to decide the institutional form that suits it best. Five salient institutional form features also come out:

1. Three levels of bodies have been shown to be important in all cases: a high-level steering committee (chaired by the minister of trade or a higher-level official and reporting to the president or prime minster), a secretariat and technical working groups (TWGs). All these bodies and groups need legal backing.

2. The prime minister or president needs to oversee the high-level steering group, but does not need to chair the actual group. The minister of trade could also take on this role.

3. The secretariat needs a senior, active, experienced and well-connected coordinator or lead, who reports to the steering committee and the permanent secretary for trade. Other staff members for the secretariat could include a legal advisor, a strategic communications specialist, a stakeholder engagement specialist, programme officers, enterprise support specialists, IT officers and administrators.

4. The private sector should be included at steering committee level and in the TWGs.

5. The NIC should engage in visible activities such as the GTI; developing a monitoring, evaluation and learning framework; and working with the AfCFTA staff, including the secretary-general, on visits and other communications.

We suggest a five-step template for the formation of NICs appropriate to each country setting:

1. Form multi-stakeholder committee(s). The committee could be government-led or a national task force formed to serve as an NIC, involving a steering committee, a secretariat with an experienced and well-connected lead, and a set of working groups that involve the private sector and engage in a range of activities.

2. Develop a clear mandate and results framework. The committee’s (legal) mandate should be clearly defined, outlining its goals, objectives and responsibilities. It is important to have legal backing, budget and performance indicators based on a clear results framework. Equally important is to develop a mandate that fits AfCFTA responsibilities into the wider trade and development framework.

3. Provide adequate resources. The committee will need adequate resources, including funding, staffing and technical support, to carry out its work effectively.

4. Engage in consultation and outreach. The committee should engage in regular consultation with stakeholders and undertake outreach activities to build awareness of the AfCFTA and the committee's work.

5. Monitor and evaluate. The committee should establish a robust monitoring and evaluation framework to track progress and identify challenges in the implementation process.

There are three roles, with associated roadmaps, for the AfCFTA Secretariat in facilitating and monitoring implementation through NICs. These include sharing best practices around NICs, undertaking monitoring of AfCFTA trade policies, and assisting with trade policy implementation in-country.

While the first role is centred around the formation of NICs, the NICs themselves could become counterparts in the monitoring and technical assistance roles.

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What is the World Economic Forum on Africa?

The role of the private sector (including manufacturers, service providers, processors, importers, and small traders) in the implementation of the AfCFTA is critical to its success. Unfortunately, in many African countries, the capacity of the private sector is weak. To address this, lead companies can work with the AfCFTA Secretariat to support private sector participation in consultation processes and in roadshow events, showcasing implementation and sharing best practices.

We suggest a threefold approach that lead companies can use to significantly advance AfCFTA implementation, in a way that is fully aligned with Secretariat and country-level efforts:

1. Developing policy positions and expressing views on national, regional and continental AfCFTA policies and strategies for key regional value chains (such as automotives, garments, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness and ICT), and supporting the AfCFTA private sector strategy.

2. Engaging in discussions and supporting NICs at strategic and operational levels (TWGs).

3. Leading in pilot actions to start trading under AfCFTA rules (e.g. through the GTI in goods and services) and sharing best practices.

4. Setting targets for trade expansion into the African market, making use of additional market access.

The AfCFTA can deliver major benefits: achieving this depends on joint actions by public and private sector stakeholders.

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