The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) opened for business on January 1, 2021, promising opportunities for people from all socio-economic strata to share in economic growth in the world’s largest free-trade zone. Expected to cover 54 African countries, with a combined gross domestic product of about U.S. $2.2 trillion, the AfCFTA is projected to generate increased cross-border trade and investment volumes, technology transfers, and income levels, lifting 30 million Africans out of extreme poverty by 2035 (Abrego et al., 2020; World Bank, 2020a).
Ambitious at the best of times, the AfCFTA faces a multitude of hurdles to effective implementation, from weaknesses in trade infrastructure, human capital, and information and communications technology to unresolved strategic and regulatory considerations, including the absence of a shared trading currency (Albert, 2019; Erasmus, 2020).
The hurdles – and the stakes – rise even higher as the COVID-19 pandemic shifts the patterns of interconnectedness for Africa and the world, highlighting the vulnerability of global supply chains (Chudik et al., 2020; World Bank, 2020a). According to the World Bank (2020b), every region across the world has been subject to growth downgrades. The World Economic Outlook estimates that sub-Saharan African economies contracted by 3% in 2020 (International Monetary Fund, 2020). For African economies dependent on the exploitation and exportation of natural resources through agriculture, mining, and forestry (Hawker, 2020), major supply-chain disruptions only heighten the need for self-sufficiency.
Meanwhile, development assistance to the continent has stagnated. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s (2020) Human Development Data, development assistance as a percentage of gross national income has remained between 2.3% and 2.8% over the past decade and is expected to decline as developed nations reduce their aid budgets amid growing pressure from their populations to allocate resources internally (Wintour, 2021).
Successfully implementing the AfCFTA in the face of these pressures will require political will as well as the buy-in of ordinary Africans whose labor, capital, and knowledge will form the lifeblood of a single market.
Afrobarometer surveys conducted in 18 African countries in late 2019 and 2020 suggest that many Africans are yet to be persuaded of the benefits of free trade. Sizeable proportions of the population – more than half in some countries – are skeptical of opening their borders to businesses and products from other countries or regions, preferring that their government protect domestic producers. In practice, most say that crossing international borders in their region for work or trade is difficult.
When it comes to development, a majority of Africans welcome the economic and political influence of the United States, China, and other international players. But they are more inclined toward self-reliance than toward external loans and global interdependence.