After years of painstaking negotiations, efforts to implement an African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) are finally gathering steam. In a major boost to the regional integration agenda, 22 out of 52 signatory countries have already ratified the plan to cut tariffs to zero on 90% of goods traded on the continent.
Yet while the CFTA offers an ambitious vision of intra-African free trade, supporters say that Africa will require billions of dollars in cross-border investments if it is to become a reality. From decrepit roads to non-existent power networks and patchy airline connections, many countries are ill-equipped to enable trade flows, even if governments tear down tariffs and legal barriers.
In a bid to crowd in such vital infrastructure investment and unlock the full potential of the CFTA, the African Development Bank (AfDB) has launched a new regional integration strategy. Khaied Sherif, vice-president of regional development, integration and business delivery at the AfDB, says that the new strategy will set ambitious, measurable targets to boost infrastructure and allow countries to pursue cross-border integration.
"I think it's much more specific than it ever was. We're trying to facilitate the construction of 9,000km of cross-border transmission lines, enhance construction or rehabilitate about 16,400km of crossborder roads, support construction of rail lines and transport corridors, increase transport links wherever possible and use investments in infrastructure as a way of creating market linkages. Our main purpose is to help all of our countries enhance the level of trade and investment amongst each other to create an economic zone that is very much like the blocs that exist in North America, Europe and Asia."
The strategy is undoubtedly wide-ranging and ambitious. Increasing air travel to 13.5m passengers, supporting ICT projects to increase African internet connectivity to 30% and ensuring that financial services are greater than 5% of African GDP are all objectives that the strategy aims to push through by 2025. Reaching these targets will boost intra-African trade to between 20% and 23% of all traded merchandise by 2025, according to the AfDB.
But given the huge challenges, how realistic are the goals? Sherif says that a ruthless focus on improvements to basic infrastructure is crucial to unlocking the other benefits.
According to 2016 data, Africa has just 204km of roads per i,ooosq km, of which only...