Could 2018 be the year of regional integration? Two initiatives being launched this year--the Single African Sky and the CFTA--promise to cut to the heart of the continent's constraints on trade and investment.

Position:Last Word - Continental Free Trade Area

The African Union has launched the long-awaited "Single African Sky" initiative, aimed at opening up the continent's fragmented airspace.

It also hopes to ratify and operationalise its ambitious Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) initiative in March, and implement it by the end of 2018. This would mean unifying its existing regional economic blocs--all eight of them. This could create a $3.4 trillion market, with free movement of goods across 54 countries, and the free movement of Africa's estimated 1.2bn people.

Both initiatives cut to the heart of one of the continent's biggest constraints on trade and investment limited regional integration. According to the African Development Bank intra-African trade was just 16% in 2014. Comparable figures are 40% in North America and roughly 60% in Western Europe.

The World Bank estimates that intra-African trade costs are around 50% higher than in East Asia, and are the highest of intra-regional costs in any developing region. It is perhaps Africa's biggest underutilised opportunity. Boosting internal trade is seen as a key to addressing core development challenges like infrastructure development and unemployment.

Limited integration is a constant source of frustration for businesses, both African and global, so the AU's plans are welcome news. But it is way too soon to celebrate. The challenge of regional integration has been a major obstacle to development for decades. It is a massive logistical and administrative undertaking, one that any regional body--EU, AU or otherwise--would struggle with.

Also, these ideas are not new, and the record of implementation is not great. The predecessor to...

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