The impact of COVID-19 on free trade in Africa
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As the world continues to grapple with the ongoing presence of COVID-19, it has become clear that the pandemic’s impacts extend far beyond human health. Economic growth, markets and supply chains, poverty, and food security have all experienced ripple effects from the pandemic itself and the measures taken to stop the spread of the deadly virus. In Africa, the outbreak of COVID-19 coincided with the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), leading to concerns about the potential negative impacts on free trade targets in the region. A forthcoming book chapter, “The COVID-19 Pandemic and African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA): Exploring Potential Impacts and Developmental Implications” (published in Global Market and Global Trade [Working Title]), examines these impacts and discusses how the AfCFTA and similar trade agreements could be used to mitigate the negative economic fallout of COVID-19 and similar shocks in the future.
The AfCFTA was launched by the African Union (AU) to address persistent low levels of intra-regional trade on the continent. In 2014, trade among African countries accounted for 16% of the continent’s overall trade activity, despite the existence of numerous bilateral intra-African trade agreements. Research has linked intra-regional trade to reduced poverty, improved food security, and strengthened economic growth, and so improving these low numbers could have significant effects on important development outcomes in Africa.
The AfCFTA’s target is to increase boost intra-regional trade by 60% by 2022. The agreement aims to achieve this ambitious goal by creating a single African continental market for goods and services that allows free movement of people (for business purposes) and investments. In addition to expected reductions in poverty and food insecurity, a secondary hoped-for outcome of the agreement is the improvement of Africa’s trading position in the global market. Some of the AfCFTA’s most important stated objectives include: the elimination of tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade; cooperation on investments, intellectual property rights, and customs matters; and the establishment of a mechanism to settle disputes among member states.
To date, 34 of the 55 AU member states have signed and ratified the agreement, making the AfCFTA the largest free trade area in the world. The agreement has the potential to lift 30 million Africans out of poverty and bring approximately USD 16.1 billion in welfare gains to the region.
The chapter reports that in the first quarter of 2020, before the outbreak of COVID-19 in Africa, there were signs that intra-regional trade was beginning to intensify as the framework of the AfCFTA took shape. However, the pandemic has already had some direct effects on the agreement itself and on trade activity within the region. COVID-19-related travel bans and border closures postponed negotiations on several key aspects of the AfCFTA, causing a six-month delay in the implementation of the agreement.
As in many other places around the world, COVID-19 and the associated policy measures adopted to help stop the spread of the virus disrupted supply chains in Africa. Inputs for agriculture, manufacturing, and other industrial uses became more difficult to import, causing production delays and shortages. At the same time, production was further slowed as many employers like factories and mines closed as part of social distancing and lockdown efforts.
Travel bans and lockdown measures around the world also led to declining demand for oil, both globally and within Africa. This has had a significant detrimental impact on oil-producing countries in the region (e.g., Angola, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Demand has slowed for African non-oil goods as well. Overall consumption throughout the region slowed in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. The chapter reports a 17.3% decline in African household expenditures from the previous year. Together, declining production and slowing demand for both oil and non-oil exports are expected to impact trade, employment, incomes, and well-being in the region for at least the next two years.
Despite these negative impacts, however, the chapter also highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic has presented the opportunity for AfCFTA and similar free trade agreements to capitalize on new products, markets, and trade frameworks. These could ultimately help mitigate the potential longer term negative impacts of the pandemic, stimulate future economic growth, and increase resilience against future shocks.
For example, the chapter argues that travel restrictions could encourage more local and regional production and reduce dependence on imports from overseas. By supporting African countries in ramping up production of goods that are currently often imported from Europe or Asia, AfCFTA can help create employment on the continent while also guarding against future supply chain disruptions.
Similarly, intra-African trade can play an important role in reducing food insecurity – both chronic and that induced by COVID-19 – in the region. Many African countries are net food exporters; however, the region also has many areas suffering from food deficits. By improving regional transportation networks, the AfCFTA can help strengthen regional food value chains. With stronger value chains, food-exporting countries can more easily export food within the region to areas in need.
The AfCFTA was also launched at the right time to leverage technological advances and improvements in connectivity across the region, the chapter argues. While other sectors have suffered from pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions, the telecommunications sector in Africa has experienced some growth. By focusing on new and emerging sectors and products, the AfCFTA could help generate employment and income opportunities that are more protected from economic shocks.
While COVID-19 has presented, and continues to present, significant challenges for populations and economies throughout Africa and the rest of the world, it also presents opportunities. The AfCFTA presents one channel through which policymakers and other value chain actors can strengthen the region’s ties, break down barriers hampering growth, and invest in vital institutions and infrastructure. By doing so, trade in the region will become more sustainable and resilient.