The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a landmark agreement that aims to create a single market for goods and services in Africa, with a population of 1.3 billion people and a combined GDP of US$3.4 trillion.
The AfCFTA entered into force on 1 January 2021, and 46 African Union (AU) member states have ratified the agreement so far.
However, not all regions in Africa are equally prepared to benefit from the opportunities and challenges that the AfCFTA presents.
In particular, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region faces some significant hurdles in implementing the agreement and integrating with other African countries.
One of the main challenges for the SADC region is the lack of adequate infrastructure and connectivity, especially for the island nations such as Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles.
These countries are geographically isolated from the mainland and have to rely on expensive and inefficient air and sea transport to access other markets.
For example, Comoros, which has not yet ratified the AfCFTA, has to fly to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which is in East Africa, first before coming to South Africa, a southern African country. This journey takes at least seven hours and involves multiple transfers and visa requirements. This makes it very difficult and costly for Comorian traders and businesses to participate in the AfCFTA.
Another challenge for the SADC region is the incomplete implementation of the SADC Free Trade Area (FTA), which was launched in 2008 and aims to eliminate tariffs and non-tariff barriers among its 16 member states.
However, only 13 SADC member states are currently implementing the FTA, while Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Comoros are still in the process of joining.
The SADC FTA is supposed to serve as a building block for the AfCFTA, as it would harmonise trade rules and standards among SADC countries and facilitate their integration with other regions.
However, the slow progress and uneven implementation of the SADC FTA undermines its credibility and effectiveness as a regional integration scheme.
Moreover, the SADC region has not yet fully aligned its trade policies and regulations with the AfCFTA requirements. For instance, four SADC member states—Madagascar and Mozambique—have not yet ratified the AfCFTA. This means that they will not be able to enjoy the preferential market access and trade facilitation measures that the agreement offers.
Additionally, some SADC countries have not yet finalised their tariff offers and rules of origin under the AfCFTA, which are essential for determining the eligibility of products for duty-free treatment.
Furthermore, some SADC countries have not yet ratified or implemented other protocols related to trade in services, dispute settlement and intellectual property rights under the AfCFTA.
These gaps and delays in aligning with the AfCFTA create uncertainty and confusion for traders and businesses in the SADC region, who may face different trade regimes and procedures depending on their destination markets.
This also reduces the competitiveness and attractiveness of the SADC region as a trading partner for other African countries.
Therefore, it is clear that the SADC region is not ready for trading under the AfCFTA.
The region needs to urgently address its infrastructure and connectivity challenges, complete its regional integration agenda under the SADC FTA, and harmonise its trade policies and regulations with the AfCFTA standards.
Only then can the SADC region reap the full benefits of the AfCFTA and contribute to Africa’s economic transformation.
In addition to the challenges mentioned above, the SADC region also faces a number of other challenges that could hinder its ability to benefit from the AfCFTA. These include:
Corruption: Corruption is a major problem in many SADC countries, which can make it difficult to do business.
Inefficient bureaucracy: The bureaucracy in many SADC countries is inefficient, which can make it difficult and time-consuming to get things done.
Lack of skilled labour: The SADC region has a shortage of skilled labour, which can make it difficult for businesses to operate.
These challenges will need to be addressed if the SADC region is to fully benefit from the AfCFTA. The region has a long way to go, but with the right policies and investments, it has the potential to become a major economic force in Africa.
One way to address the challenges faced by island nations in the region is to increase the frequency and accessibility of regional flights to and from island nations. This would make it easier for businesses to travel to other Southern African countries.
Another way to address the challenges faced by island nations in the region is to improve the infrastructure and connectivity between the mainland and the islands. This could include building new roads, railways, and seaports, as well as improving air travel.
The SADC region also needs to improve its trade policies and regulations to align with the AfCFTA requirements. This would make it easier for businesses to trade across borders.
Finally, the SADC region needs to address the challenges of corruption, inefficiency, and lack of skilled labour. This could be done by strengthening the rule of law, improving the efficiency of government bureaucracy, and investing in education and training.
By addressing these challenges, the SADC region can position itself to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the AfCFTA. This would help to boost economic growth and development in the region.
The AfCFTA is a major opportunity for the SADC region. However, the region needs to address the challenges it faces in order to fully benefit from the agreement. By addressing these challenges, the SADC region can become a major economic force in Africa.
Tanatsiwa Dambuza is a graduate with MSc in International Trade and Diplomacy and a Regional Integration Expert and Consultant with special focus on AfCFTA, SADC, EAC and COMESA. He is the Founder of Zimbabwe Institute of African Integration and an advocate for youth, women and SMEs inclusion in regional trade negotiations and processes. He can be contacted on email@example.com or +263779988050