By Clifford Akumu

African leaders have been urged to promote peace within and between countries to power the growth of the continental free trade area that seeks to unlock the movement of goods and services.

Her Excellency, Madame Bineta Diop, the African Union Commission’s Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security said the youth, particularly girls would want to take advantage of the benefits the free trade area pact would bring, “but without peace and security, this won’t happen.”

Speaking at the ongoing 39th Gender is My Agenda(GIMAC) Youth Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Madame Diop noted that African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) needs to initiate issues of peace in volatile regions such as the Congo, Sahel region and Ethiopia that are already embroiled in continued instability.

Madame Bineta Diop, the African Union Commission’s Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security

“AfCFTA won’t make sense for women, girls, and the youth nor be beneficial to the African people without peace, security, and stability for trade. We cannot continue fighting, yet we are one,” she said.

“Africa’s integration is key…And only women and youth can be the vehicle to achieve that.”

Already, eight countries-Kenya, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Mauritius, Rwanda, Tanzania and Tunisia are participating in the AfCFTA’s Guided Trade Initiative (GTI) representing five regions across the continent.

The GTI was launched in Accra, Ghana on 7th, October 2022 and seeks to allow commercially meaningful trading and to test the operational, institutional, legal and trade policy environment under the AfCFTA.

Tea, coffee, batteries, ceramic tiles, processed meat products, corn starch, sugar, pasta, glucose syrup, dried fruits, and sisal fiber are among the products earmarked to trade under this initiative.

Trade experts have termed AfCFTA- Africa’s single trading bloc-a game-changer that is designed to deepen integration, foster trade and investment, enhance mobility of capital and labour as well as support industrialization.

“We need to operationalize AfCFTA, make it practical by removing the systemic and structural barriers and start challenging the trade regimes that make it impossible to navigate the borders. Our focus as women in trade should not be just on cross border trade but also on the macro level systems we need to engage central banks, customs unions and office of the registration among other partner stakeholders,” said Memory Kachambwa, the Executive Director, of The African Women’s Development and Communications Network.

Chido Cleo Mpemba, the African Union Youth Envoy said the success of the continental free trade area will depend on the participation of major stakeholders like the youth noting, “they constitute over 60 percent of the continent’s population.”

She reiterated that “the youth are not passive recipients but they are also active agents of change and are critical actors in the realization and implementation of  AfCFTA discussions.

“The implementation of the trade protocol represents a lifeline opportunity for the young people to shape the future of the continent.”

On her part, Jill Anami, the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) said that the AfCFTA will give the continent an opportunity for an extended market.

“We should strive to support a gender-inclusive economic development by strengthening the mobility of women across the African continent. We are missing greater opportunities as the African continent. It’s time to build our own, have financial independence and empower our entrepreneurs to add value to our products,” said Anami.

The event brought together leading African women and girl specialists to interrogate the status of gender equality and inclusion in the envisaged AfCFTA.

It also spotlights women and youth in all their diversities in the trade discussions taking into account that they have been marginalized and their voices seldom included in the continental free trade conversations.

“Meaningfully engaging youths in the AfCFTA includes giving skills, resources, and an opportunity to participate in trade beyond borders. The GIMAC space is important as it is in itself a solution to the high unemployment rates,” Karen Ondwasi, Chairperson, GIMAC Young Women Network.

Fatimah Kelleher, an independent women’s rights, and social justice activist observes that equality between nations will be felt by the least privileged, especially women, in disproportionate numbers.

She also emphasizes that “The question of what goods and services will be fully liberalized, phased, or restricted by each country is the critical factor within the negotiations. Agriculture particularly presents a challenge for women across the continent as competition is opened up on many similar crops between nations.”

Kelleher noted that in Nigeria for example, rice, groundnuts, and palm fruits are all key crops that women process and trade in as finished or semi-finished products.

Currently, intra-African trade stands low at just 14.4 percent of total African exports. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in their forecasts show the AfCFTA could boost that number by about 33 percent and cut the continent’s trade deficit by 51 percent.