Headquarters of the South African Development Community in Gaborone, Botswana. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Much of the discussion at last year’s landmark U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC, focused on transatlantic trade and investment between the U.S. and African countries – for example, the need to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which aims to promote trade with the U.S. by removing tariffs on a number of African exports. Another theme that was prevalent throughout the summit, however, was the need to open up borders, reduce barriers, and increase trade between African nations.
It’s becoming quite common to talk about the rise of Africa and the potential return on investment in a continent often compared, demographically and economically, to countries like China and India. In fact, even developing sub-Saharan Africa is slightly richer than India on a per capita basis, and the continent as a whole has a larger GDP. The economic potential of Africa’s billion people, as both workers and consumers, is only beginning to be tapped.
These statistics are accurate and encouraging, but they can also be slightly misleading. Africa is not a single country, like China or India. It is 54 different countries with 54 different sets of borders and laws creating 54 fragmented, often tiny markets. Doing business in China or India means over a billion people as potential customers or employees. But there is no equivalent “African market.” Investing in Cameroon does not give you much access to Algeria or Zimbabwe, or any country in between. High tariffs, bureaucratic red tape at the borders, and poor infrastructure all make it hard for goods, capital, and workers to move freely through the continent.
Undeniable progress has been made in regards to tariffs, with the establishment of regional trade blocs such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the East African Community (EAC). Yet there is still much that needs to be done to unite the continent and also to integrate it with the rest of the world.