By Otito Greg-Obi
Recently, African heads of state gathered together in Egypt to sign the Tripartite Free Trade Area agreement (TFTA) which will join the forces of the East African Community (EAC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Free trade is crucial to global economies because it reduces tariff barriers which in turn results in trade creation. The benefits of trade for developing nations in general are numerous. To name a few: first and foremost, trade allows for specialization meaning countries can build a comparative advantage by focusing on producing goods with low opportunity costs. Secondly, trade encourages healthy competition which incentivizes businesses to increase efficiency and cut costs. Lastly, trade can reduce dependence on existing markets and stabilize countries affected by seasonal changes in markets.
The TFTA agreement has been long awaited – negotiations began in 2005 and were expected to conclude in December 2013. Major components of the trade agreement include the promotion of socioeconomic development and the free movement of goods and services. A customs union is also in the works to be implemented at a future date. But, the TFTA addresses more than just trade, it promotes the upward mobility of business people and advances the cause of social justice.
Although the creation of the TFTA is an exciting development in the world of business, there are still hurdles to overcome during its implementation. Economic integration can be a slow, demanding process, especially since many African countries in this new trading bloc are at varying stages in economic development and trade activity. Furthermore, transportation costs pose a major impediment to the integration of TFTA. Connecting these 26 countries will be a difficult task because the land is vast and requires large infrastructure projects. It will be difficult to ensure that domestic African businesses reap substantial benefits from the new trade area. And lastly, some countries such as Swaziland, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia are concerned about the loss of revenue that will come from customs unions.
The promotion of the free market is a major stimulant for economic development. However, in order for the free market to run smoothly, it is important for African countries to continue working on other important issue areas such as corporate governance, transparency, and public-private dialogue. CIPE has engaged with TFTA countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya on these issues. These issues must remain at the forefront so that the new TFTA can operate effectively and remain beneficial to all parties involved.
Challenges aside, there is still plenty for businesses and governments in the new African free trade area to look forward to. This trade powerhouse totals $1 trillion in GDP. This is big news for African businesses because it will enhance enterprise ecosystems in the region immensely. With the implementation of this new agreement, trade is expected to increase from 12 percent to 30 percent, meaning economic activity will reach more than 600 million people. This could be a major step towards a Continental Free Trade Area, which the African Union aims to complete by 2017.
Otito Greg-Obi is a CIPE intern for Knowledge Management. She is a rising junior at University of Pennsylvania.