The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) continues to hold much promise for the continent, in the second year of trading since its launch in January 2021.
AfCFTA is reshaping African markets; deepening economic integration in accordance with the Pan African Vision of ‘An integrated, Prosperous and Peaceful Africa,’ as enshrined in Agenda 2063. The agreement established a single continental market for goods and services, making for the largest and most ambitious trade bloc in the world, after the WTO. This has created a new market of 1.3 billion consumers across Africa, accounting for a combined GDP in excess of US$3.4 trillion in 55 countries.
According to the World Bank, AfCFTA has the potential to eradicate extreme poverty in the lives of 30 million Africans, and boost the incomes of 68 million of them, that live below the poverty line. Moreover, in the long term the continent is set to immensely reap more benefits out of the Agreement such as the diversification of Intra African trade, elimination of barriers and tariffs, job creation, increase in wages for unskilled workers, export diversification, an enlarged regional market that better attracts FDI and durable sustained economic growth.
Despite its implementation being slowed down by the C-19 pandemic, AfCFTA is still a beacon of hope for the continent, projected to be an engine of growth in the continent for years to come. The Secretary-General of AfCFTA, Wamkele Mene, notes that despite the pandemic shocks, the continent is still fully committed to the AfCFTA, calling it a vital instrument of Africa’s recovery strategy.
African women have been identified as key components to the success of AfCFTA in the continent, as encompassed in the agreement driven towards creating economic empowerment for women in trade; by improving their access to trade opportunities and stimulating wage gains by about 10.5 per cent. Women are key stakeholders in the development of the African economy under AfCFTA comprising 70 per cent of informal traders and are essential to the continent’s success in leveraging the full potential of the AfCFTA. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) run by women account to close to 60 per cent of Africa’s GDP, creating about 450 million jobs. According to McKinsey, African women contributed 33 per cent of the continent’s GDP in 2018.
Gender inequality in almost all spheres of life has been the story of many African women across the continent. Women account for 60 per cent of all jobs globally but earn only 10% of the income. 70 per cent of women experience financial exclusion, which significantly contributes to gender imbalance in Africa. The African Union (AU) has been keen on changing this narrative, to break the cycle of poverty and inequality that most African women have been subject to.
The agreement supports women in trade as enumerated in the AfCFTA Protocol on Trade in Services. In light of this, Article 3 (e) of the AfCFTA agreement specifies that it aims to ‘promote and attain sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development, gender equality and structural transformation. In reiteration, article 27 (d) advocates for bolstering the export capacity of formal and informal service suppliers, with particular attention to micro, small and medium-sized operators, women and youth service suppliers.
During the 8th session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development (ARFSD) held in Kigali, Rwanda in the first week of March 2022, women’s key role in AfCFTA was thoroughly discussed, highlighting the challenges and prospects for utilizing the opportunities, presented by AfCFTA towards gender equality in the realization of SDG 5 and Agenda 2063.
AfCFTA is set to boost women-owned businesses and their roles in different sectors such as agriculture, by expanding markets for exports and widening opportunities available to women. With increased diversification and industrialization, AfCFTA will ameliorate women’s employment wages, especially in manufacturing industries. The trade initiative fosters competitive manufacturing and possesses the potential to boost Africa’s sector, to double in size from US$500 billion in 2015 to US$1 trillion in 2025, creating 14million stable jobs.
AfCFTA supports the ‘SheTrades Project’ which seeks to improve the competitiveness of women entrepreneurs, generate new business opportunities and foster a conducive ecosystem to trade under the Agreement. AfCFTA, through both its protocol of trade in goods and on trade in services, is cognizant of the significance of building capacity in women, in order to trade better for the sustainable development of the continent.
Breaking bias through Gender Mainstreaming in AfCFTA
Gender mainstreaming has proved to be a viable strategy, for promoting gender equality through the AfCFTA; since the development of the national AfCFTA implementation strategies in 2019, which inculcated gender mainstreaming at the core. The UN Economic Commission for Africa aided 15 African countries in the endeavour. Hitherto, it has been a godsend as it creates an understanding of how women contribute to and participate in trade, particularly in the priority economic sectors of agriculture, manufacturing and services; as key sectors expected to gain new trade opportunities through AfCFTA.
It entails examining gender-specific constraints that confront female workers, producers, entrepreneurs and traders; in tandem with identifying new trade and economic opportunities to catalyze women’s employment and entrepreneurship. The approach can help policymakers to better understand economic activities and subsectors in which women are concentrated.
In addition, it can help in identifying high export potential areas, such as regional value chains that could channel positive socio-economic impact. Gender mainstreaming is inspiring the development of gender-responsive policies and context-specific interventions; to advance the full and equitable participation of women in AfCFTA, which is backed by findings from informed statistics on gender and trade.
However, if this approach is to be a long-term solution that promotes the gender equality objective, whilst contributing to inclusive and sustainable development; it requires adequate mobilization of financial resources from member states. Additionally, external partners supporting the agreement for skill development, capacity building, and collection of gender-disaggregated data among other interventions are needed.
Outcomes from gender mainstreaming in the national AfCFTA strategies should be utilized to design targeted programs, that support women’s economic empowerment and ensure women’s participation. An all-in approach by stakeholders is required to support women’s role in AfCFTA; from respective governments, the private sector, investors and relevant partners.
Role of the African Union in Championing Gender Parity through AfCFTA
The African Union has been at the forefront of advocating for gender equality in Africa through various initiatives and similarly seeks to add AfCFTA to its arsenal and bolster the socio-economic welfare of women in the continent. The Organization emphasizes that AfCFTA is also a catalyst for women, following the Declaration 2020 to 2030 as the new Decade of Women’s Financial and Economic Inclusion, and that African leaders are committed to scaling up actions for the progressive gender inclusion, towards sustainable development.
The Union has previously used the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) strategy and the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, to push for the inclusion of women in Africa’s development agenda. In addition, through legal frameworks such as the Maputo Protocol and the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (SDGEA); the AU has been addressing harmful practices and social norms that disempower women.
Into the bargain, Agenda 2063 which is an integral AU flagship project, advocates for an ‘Africa whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth’ under aspiration 6, with a goal to strengthen the role of Africa’s women by ensuring gender equality in all spheres of life. Furthermore, this is well aligned with the UN SDGs that champion gender parity.
Future of African Women Inclusion in the AfCFTA
Going forward, AfCFTA is intent on supporting women and bridging the gender gap thwarting the full blossom of the Agreement; in recognition of the significant transformational impact women hold, in building the continent’s economy and eradicating poverty. According to the AU, the prospective shift from micro to macro business opportunities for women, will not be spontaneous and the expected benefits for women should be tempered with realism and commitment, to adequately address existing challenges women often face in trading.
According to the ‘Futures Report: Making AfCFTA Work for Women and Youth’ produced by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the AfCFTA Secretariat; women traders must have access to training opportunities and information on trade networks, in order to maximize the benefits of the Agreement.
AfCFTA seeks to continue prioritizing the needs of women in the legal and technical frameworks being established now and in future, by leveraging on Africa’s rich human assets devoid of bias. The UNDP Resident Representative in Ghana, Angela Lusigi notes that AfCFTA shall continue facilitating cross-border investment, protect intellectual property rights, and collaborate on customs and taxation, implementing trade facilitation to ensure more equitable and gender-friendly sustainable opportunities; which is critical to the ongoing liberalization of the services of trade.
In reiteration, Wamkele Mene, emphasizes that AfCFTA is a long-term project that will yield multiple benefits. Results are likely to be conspicuously felt in 20 to 30 years, in terms of the investments being made in various fields, market competitiveness, elimination of legal barriers to trade and gender parity in all aspects of trade.