The African Continental Free Trade Agreement: Benefits and Challenges

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is a trade agreement which is in force between 27 African Union member states. It was signed in Kigali, Rwanda, on 21 March 2018.

A map showing countries that have ratified or signed the agreement.
» As of July 7, 2019, 27 states have signed the agreement. Ratification by 22 countries was required for the AfCFTA to enter into force and the African Continental Free Trade Area to become effective.
» Trading under the AfCFTA will commence on July 1st, 2020.
» Ghana is the host of the continental Secretariat of the AfCFTA.
» 7th July will be officially celebrated as the Day of African Integration in commemoration of the historic operationalisation launch of the AfCFTA.

The agreement is intended to cover a market of 1.2 billion people in 55 nations with a combined gross domestic product of $2.5 trillion. If fully implemented, it will make Africa the largest free trade area in the world. Furthermore, it is hoped that the agreement will bring a number of socio-economic benefits to the continent and its people.

Here are some of the benefits and challenges that are expected once trading under the agreement begins on July 1st, 2020.



85% of all Zambia’s exports is copper.

The agreement aims at diversifying trade exports, minimising over dependency on extractive industries to higher-value added products and services. Between 1990 and 2014, developed nations diversified their economies while most African countries relied on extractive industries. Oil represented more than half of Africa’s exports to non-African countries from 2010 to 2015, while manufactured goods made up only 18 percent of exports to the rest of the world.

Vera Songwe, Economic Commission for Africa’s executive secretary belives that the AfCFTA will encourage diversification because exports that would gain most are those that are labour-intensive, like manufacturing and agro-processing, rather than the capital-intensive oil and minerals.

In addition to diversification of goods and services, the AfCFTA will allow businesses, particularly SMEs, to diversify by export destinations within the continent. This will enable SMEs to enter new markets and expand their customer base.

Open Borders

Opening up of borders through the AfCFTA is expected to increase employment opportunities for Africa’s youths and women who account for 70% of small-scale, cross-border trade.

Moreover, a single African market will provide a solution to one of the biggest obstacles the continent is facing: professional mobility and skills portability. The majority of African migrants choose to stay on the continent and 70% of sub-Saharan migrants move within Africa.

Visa bureaucracy and eligibility criteria are among the biggest hurdles to mobility within Africa. In Nigeria, for instance, the eligibility criteria for a visa for a skilled worker are considered too demanding, focusing on formal education levels rather than on experience gained through work.

Movement of labour will be enhanced by other continental initiatives such as the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons and Right to Residence and Right to Establishment.

70% of sub-Saharan migrants move within Africa.

Intra-Regional Trade

The AfCFTA will unlock Africa’s economic potential by boosting intra-regional trade. Africa’s intra-regional trade accounted for just 17% of exports in 2017 versus 59% in Asia and 69% in Europe. The UN Economic Commission for Africa estimates that the implementation of the agreement could increase intra-African trade by 52% by 2022.

Colonialism created a situation where neighbours stopped trading with each other. The main trading route was between African countries and European countries and between African countries and the US. — says David Luke, coordinator of the African Trade Policy Centre.

Elimination of Tariffs

One of the key components of the agreement is the reduction of export tariffs. Members will eliminate tariffs on most goods, which will increase trade in the region by 15-25% in the medium term.

Majority of the members will benefit from 90% tariff cuts within a five-year period. The deadline for the cuts is ten years for countries listed as “Least Developed Countries” by the United Nations. Other countries such as Mozambique, Niger and Malawi, obtained an extension of 15 years.

Tarrifs elimination is expected to boost SMEs, which are responsible for more than 80% of Africa’s employment and 50% of its GDP.

Furthermore, the agreement will also eliminate non-tariff barriers to trade such as import quotas, long customs delays at the borders and subsidies.

SMEs are responsible for more than 80% of Africa’s employment and 50% of its GDP.

Reduction in Input Costs

The process of importing raw materials from other member states will be simplified. SMEs will be able to set up production units in other African countries to access cheaper means of production.

Improved Quality and Compliance Standards

The AfCFTA has identified quality and compliance as a key element in the trade zone. This will involve standards regarding health, safety, and the environment, leading to harmonised quality standards on the continent.


There are huge challenges ahead that need to be tackled for the continent to realise the benefits outlined above. Here are some of the expected challenges.

We don’t have electric power; our manufacturers are still struggling to break even. Companies will go to a more stable environment where cost of production will be cheap to manufacture and bring it in to Nigeria’s large market to sell without paying duty. We will lose a lot of jobs. — Nigerian Umeh Chidozie writing on DW Africa’s Facebook page.

Uneven Development

South Africa is one of Africa’s leading economies.

Levels of development on the continent vary significantly. For example, over 50% of Africa’s cumulative GDP is contributed by Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa, while Africa’s six island nations collectively contribute just 1%.

Competing Trade Blocks

Currently, Africa has 8 competing trade blocks. According to Economic Commission for Africa report, a key hindrance to integration in Africa has been the multiplicity of regional economic communities with overlapping memberships, resulting in a duplication of efforts and waste of scarce resources. Out of sub-Saharan Africa’s 53 countries, only 6 are members of one regional economic community, 26 belong to two and 20 are members of at least three.

Therefore, fewer regional communities would reduce administration costs and provide funds to improve day-to-day operations and finance projects.

Movement of Labour

Mo Ibrahim Foundation notes that there is limited or weak frameworks for recognition and compatibility of skills, educational and experience qualifications across national borders. This hinders the ability of migrants to enter and effectively engage in continental labour markets.

Rules of Origin

Jammie de Melo argues that free trade will also require harmonising rules of origin (the criteria needed to determine the national source of a product) at the continental level since most countries still maintain different trade policies with extra-continental partners.

Increased Competitive Pressure

Member states relying on small scale farming might not be able to compete.

Small African economies will face stiff competition from Africa’s leading economies. For example, African countries that rely on small scale farming will not be able to compete with large agri-businesses in high-income African countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt and Nigeria.

Environmental Degradation

Tough competition may lead some companies to disregard the environment to be able to compete. Many SMEs are likely to cut costs, including those related to manufacturing and the proper dumping of waste.


Looking at past continental agreements, the success of the AfCFTA will depend on political will, genuine commitment and proper implementation. Common social, political and economic problems on the continent such as corruption, conflicts, and poor governance need to be urgently addressed for the benefits of the AfCFTA to be realised.

Ndesanjo is an experienced blogger and journalist. He was named one of 100 Influential Africans in Media Category. His mission is simple: making finance work for everyone. Read more about Ndesanjo and the whole editorial team at FiFi.