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Experts lobby for trade digitalisation Across Africa as crucial impetus to realise AfCFTA

ADDIS ABABA, (The Southern African Times) – Digitalisation of trade across Africa can significantly boost free trade in Africa, helping to realize the objectives of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement, experts and policymakers attending the African Economic Conference said on Wednesday.

The 2020 edition of the African Economic Conference is underway virtually from December 8 to 10. Jointly organized by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the conference provides a platform for academics and young researchers to present solution-oriented research to policymakers.

“In order to properly implement the AfCFTA, we are going to need digitalisation in two aspects, digital and virtual services themselves and everything that delivers across finance, remote health, agriculture and education. The second is the enabling exercise that digitalisation gives particularly for trade and in the different sectors. Making sure that these gains are actually realised takes a multi-sector, multifactor effort,” said Tunde Fafunwa, UNECA Lead Advisor.

Fafunwa made the remarks during a special session held as part of the continental conference under the theme “Realising the AfCFTA Promised Gains: Fostering Implementation Through Digitalisation and Comparative Experiences from the Global South.”

The AfCFTA seeks to create an integrated African market of 1.27 billion consumers, which is expected to reach 1.7 billion by 2030, with an aggregated gross domestic product of up to 3.4 trillion U.S. dollars.

Ongoing research led by experts at the UNECA and the United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC) aims to document the opportunities, challenges and the role of digitalisation in the implementation of the AfCFTA. The study looks at case studies in some regional economic communities such as EAC, SADC and COMESA, where digitalization is already happening, and draws some comparative lessons for the implementation of AfCFTA.

“We do not want the report to be an academic study, we want the report to contain policy recommendations that will be practical, and resource oriented for our policymakers especially capacity building. In order to implement AfCFTA, we will need to keep on building capacities on the continent and in this report, we want to put emphasis on how we can leverage digitalization to build capacities to implement AfCFTA,” said Bineswaree Bolaky, presenting the overall objectives of the study.

However, various issues such as harmonising standards and improving the existing legal frameworks, enacting cyber-security, consumer and data protection laws, and reducing the high cost of access all need to be addressed in order for Africa to take advantage of digitalization, it was noted.

The ECA also emphasised that “more needs to be done to facilitate electronic transactions to drive e-commerce and step up investments in ICT infrastructure for the digital economy to develop.”

Panelists of the conference also highlighted the need for policies to create an enabling environment for productive digital trade.

Temilade Abimbola, Lead Corporate Officer in the Office of the AfDB President, said there is a need to pay attention to creating an enabling environment to facilitate digitalisation, which, she argues, offers the best opportunity for Africa to harmonise standards to facilitate trade.

The call came days after African leaders on Saturday approved trading under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement should start on January 1, 2021.

“We call on women, youth, businesses, trade unions, civil society, cross border traders, the academia, the African Diaspora and other stakeholders to join us as governments in this historic endeavor of creating the Africa we want in line with the African Union Agenda 2063,” the leaders said in a declaration at the end of their 13th extraordinary summit of the member-states held virtually on Saturday.

African leaders reaffirmed their resolve to deepen continental integration through the AfCFTA and commended the contribution of the African Ministers of Trade for the preparations toward the launch of trading on January 1, 2021.

The AfCFTA is regarded as the world’s largest free trade zone by the number of countries, covering about 1.2 billion people.

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