Geographies in Depth

With Kenya and Rwanda opening borders for other Africans, what will visa-free travel mean for Africa’s economic growth?

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This decision could boost regional income by hundreds of billions of dollars, improve inclusion and reduce poverty. Image: Unsplash/Artur Tumasjan

Andrea Willige
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  • Rwanda and Kenya have opened their borders for visa-free travel for fellow Africans, following the example of Benin, The Gambia and Seychelles.
  • This aligns with the African Union's vision of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
  • Through its Forum Friends of the African Continental Free Trade Area, the World Economic Forum mobilizes global business support for AfCFTA.

Let us all unite” – instruct the opening words of the African Union (AU) anthem.

Rwanda and Kenya have just taken steps to bring the continent closer to this goal by allowing fellow Africans to travel to their countries visa-free in the future. They are following the lead of Benin, The Gambia and the Seychelles, which were the first countries to scrap visa requirements for intra-African travel, Africa News reports.

Removing visa restrictions is in line with the Union’s long-term vision of an “integrated, politically united” Africa characterized by free movement of people and trade. By emulating the model of the European Union, the AU hopes to open up a similarly powerful integrated market across the continent. If it can achieve this, it could boost regional income by hundreds of billions of dollars, improve inclusion and reduce poverty.

Africa News quotes Kenya’s President William Ruto as saying that visa restrictions work against the continent’s common interests. “When people cannot travel, business people cannot travel, entrepreneurs cannot travel, we all become net losers, he says”

Image: X/_AfricanUnion

Towards an African single market

Rwanda and Kenya’s announcements regarding visa-free travel are further steps along the roadmap set out by the AU with its pan-African passport in 2016 and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in 2021.

The latter creates a single market expected to encompass 1.7 billion people and $6.7 trillion in consumer and business spending by 2030. And that figure is expected to grow to $16 trillion by 2050, the World Economic Forum reports.

When fully implemented, the AfCFTA could bump up the region’s income by 9%, equivalent to $571 billion, by the mid-2030s, according to the World Bank, and create 18 million extra jobs, many of them higher quality and better-paid roles. It predicts that up to 50 million people could be lifted out of extreme poverty through job creation and wage growth, especially women, whose pay increases are predicted to outpace men's.

In combination, these factors could help eradicate extreme poverty across the continent, which was at close to 50% in the mid-1990s but could drop to as low as 1.7% between 2056 and 2065, the African Union Development Agency predicts.

Statistic illustrating the projected share of population in Africa living in extreme poverty from 1996 to 2065.
A united Africa also could see vastly lower levels of poverty. Image: Statista

African industry, agriculture and tourism to thrive

In AfCFTA: A New Era for Global Business and Investment in Africa, the Forum identifies four high-potential sectors for economic development: automotive; agriculture and agro-processing pharmaceuticals; and transport and logistics. These industries are expected to not only meet growing domestic demand but also make for successful exports to the rest of the world.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has also pointed to the role tourism might play in a unified Africa, Africa News reports. Currently, six out of 10 tourists still come from the rest of the world, but Africa’s growing middle classes represent a growth opportunity for both global and inter-African tourism, he says.

If Africa can unite – as the anthem asks – and open up internal borders for travel and trade, the continent could take a major step forward in realizing its growth ambitions.

The World Economic Forum is working to mobilize global business support for the implementation of the AfCFTA through its Forum Friends of the African Continental Free Trade Area. This coalition includes more than 60 leaders, from heads of state to chief executives and experts in many fields.

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Geographies in DepthEconomic Growth
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