When Ghana’s former President and Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, spoke at the inaugural conference of the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1963, he said that Africa had reached a point “where we must unite or sink.”
Amujae Leader, economist, and former Minister of Investment, Trade, and Industry in Botswana, Bogolo Kenewendo, reflected on those words recently when she delivered a public lecture on “The Rebuilding of African Economies During and After COVID-19 and the Opportunities Women Should Leverage for Their Advancement.”
She used them as an illustration of how Africa needed to grasp the opportunities created by the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which began officially operating this January.
Hosted by the Wits School of Governance—a South African post-graduate institution that works towards transforming the public, private, and non-governmental sectors—Ms. Kenewendo said:
“Regional integration will be a key component in Africa’s economic progress and poverty reduction. If there were really ever a time for us to talk about and to work on an economically integrated Africa, it certainly is now.”
Ms. Kenewendo highlighted the new trade area’s huge potential. It has already committed to eliminating tariffs on 90% of goods at a time when other regions are becoming more inwardly reliant. It could increase the value of intra-African trade by as much as 25% by 2040, and add as much as $3 trillion in combined GDP to African countries.
Ms. Kenewendo reflected further on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa. Many countries initially focused on simply dealing with the crisis—it was a shock on a global scale. However, nearly one year on, there was now an opportunity to recalibrate and move forward, turning Africa’s efforts towards a regional trading infrastructure at a time when multilateralism is harder to achieve:
“When COVID-19 hit, most countries started to implement protectionist policies that didn’t allow exports of PPE, and we’re seeing that now with the introduction of the vaccine.”
As with many economies around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated trends such as the digitization of economic activity. Ms. Kenewendo argued that Africa’s lack of existing digital infrastructure gives the continent the opportunity to build almost from scratch, benefitting both individual economies and the entire trading bloc. She also argued that it was important to invest in African technology, ensuring that money stays within the continent.
Moving on to the opportunities for women and young people, Ms. Kenewendo stressed that there shouldn’t only be a focus on micro-businesses, micro-credit, and micro-finance, as is often the case when creating economic policies for these groups. Instead, women and young people should be brought into conversations that move beyond the informal sector, and decision-makers should look for ways of redirecting capital more equitably.
Ms. Kenewendo also talked about the opportunities to tap into African knowledge and practices that have resulted in innovative solutions, citing the medical field as one area where this has been seen already. Harnessing this “African IP,” said Ms. Kenewendo, could empower communities to promote and capitalize on their traditional knowledge and cultural expressions while maintaining control of them.
You can watch the full lecture and listen to the additional question and answer session with the audience here.