For a continent as big and diverse as Africa, regional integration is a mammoth task, but the longer African nations delay it, the more slowly Africa will develop, with intra-regional trade failing to take off.
While 60 per cent of the EU’s trade is within the EU, and 25 per cent of Asian trade is within Asia, the comparable figure for Africa is only around 10–12 per cent.
Regional economic integration, facilitating such trade across Africa, has made some significant contributions but the pace has been limited by notable challenges.
For intra-regional trade to flourish, governments across Africa must create more ‘trade friendly’ regulation and infrastructure, in particular: Work together to create regional transport corridors. Currently, transport costs in Africa average about 11.4 per cent of the value of exports, compared to around 6.8 per cent for developed economies; Remove barriers to the mobility of labour. Africans need visas to get into at least two-thirds of other Africa countries, exacerbating skills deficits; Enhance and support regional technology infrastructure, such as the emergence of a digital trade settlement system called Bank Payments Obligation (BPO); Address unreliable and costly energy supply and the relatively low penetration of information, communication and technology networks; Make African currencies convertible, lowering the cost of intra-regional trade; currently, payments have to be settled in international currencies, such as dollars or euros, with high intermediation costs; and create less restrictive fiscal and regional policies to encourage intra-regional trade.
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, various initiatives have made a significant contribution towards regional integration.
Financial market integration has taken a step forward through the setup of monetary unions, such as the West African Economic and Monetary Union, the Central African Economic and Monetary Union, and the Common Monetary Area in Southern Africa. We have also seen more regional banks available, and helping to facilitate cross-border trade.
BPO, the new digital trade settlement system, has increased the speed, reliability and convenience of international trade, while mitigating risks and reducing costs for the buyer and seller. And new bilateral trade deals in 2015, for example between Uganda and Kenya and between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, should enable faster clearance of goods and reduce the cost of doing business in the region.
The main challenge to integration has been in national plans, which look great on paper, but are a challenge to deliver because of technology, infrastructure, transport and budgetary constraints.
To move regional integration forward, governments in Africa can collaborate with, and draw on the expertise and experience of, the private sector to shape trade policies and establish priority areas for effective and sustainable trade in Africa. The private sector, especially the financial sector, can assist by using strong balance sheets to make capital accessible. The public sector, as the catalyst of monetary policy, can review overlapping and restrictive policies to make integration more effective. The telecommunications industry on the other hand, can assist by making the latest technology platforms accessible to the public sector.
Africa’s current demographics are set to make the continent home to the world’s youngest population by 2040. An expanding middle class, now put at 355 million, raises Africa’s profile as a market and a destination for investment. If intra-regional trade became easier, there’s no telling what it could do for the continent’s overall trade levels and, ultimately, its growth potential.
Author: RICHARD ETEMESI
The writer is the Chief Executive Officer, South Africa and Southern Africa, Standard Chartered