The Covid-19 pandemic has dragged African economies into a drop of around 1.4% of GDP, with smaller economies facing a contraction of up to 7.8%.
This has forced many already poor and heavily indebted countries to borrow more from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) just to survive the pandemic.
In fact, many have already borrowed from the future.
With debt exceeding total economic output, how will these African nations recover?
The answer lies in the full integration of the African continent. Individually African countries are weak, but united they could unleash Africa’s true potential.
Integration begins when political leaders have the will and the courage to break with a colonial mindset that separates Africans.
First, African leaders must honor the commitments they have made and implement the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
The AfCFTA must be the priority in the development of policies and regulations in each signatory country.
We need to start looking at the issues that keep Africans divided. Infrastructure is the biggest barrier between us.
There are over 600 million Africans who have no electricity. The vast majority are women from rural areas. Lack of electricity affects health, educational opportunities and livelihoods. Without it, there is no mobile phone or the Internet.
These women are isolated from each other, from the rest of their country and from the continent. Development projects that do not include women should not be funded by the African Development Bank and similar institutions.
An integrated Africa is not possible when there are currently so few transport networks connecting countries to each other.
Political leaders must see the enormous value of engagement and cooperation in cross-border investments in road, rail and port infrastructure. Poor road and rail networks make doing business in Africa expensive.
Take the example of the Mombasa-Nairobi-Addis road corridor project. It took truck drivers at least three days to travel the dilapidated 500 km stretch from the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
During the rainy season, drivers were stranded on the road for more than a week as fresh produce destined for nearby markets rotted in their vehicles. The situation has crippled trade between Kenya and Ethiopia. Since the rehabilitation of the road in 2016, it now takes less than a day to travel from Kenya to Ethiopia. Kenya-Ethiopia trade has grown 400% over the past three years.
The Abidjan-Lagos Corridor, which is coordinated by Togo, Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Benin, is an example of the development of transnational transport in which African leaders and institutions should invest. The objective is to build 290 km of motorway and 630 km of roads from Abidjan to Lagos via Accra, Lomé and Cotonou. In addition to connecting several seaports, the network would also serve the landlocked Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
Once completed, over 75% of West Africa’s trade volumes would be transported along this corridor.
Between 80 and 90% of goods and people are transported by road in Africa. We therefore need more roads connecting African countries.
Manufacturing and industrialization
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the need for Africa to prioritize manufacturing. A handful of vaccine manufacturing facilities located in Africa produce less than 1% of the vaccines Africans need. Ninety-nine percent of the vaccines used on the continent are imported.
At a recent African Union (AU) online meeting of African heads of state and international finance and health experts, it was estimated that the pandemic has cost Africa 30 million jobs. . More than six million jobs can be created if the continent can take hold of medical manufacturing. This should include – not just vaccines – but the entire vaccine supply chain, from syringes to plastics and containers for vaccines.
Breaking down colonial barriers
Africa’s borders are colonial vestiges that we have inherited, along with rigid visa regimes, costly customs procedures and a dizzying amount of foreign exchange. Achieving full Africa-wide integration will be difficult as long as Africans need visas to travel to more than half of the countries on their own continent and to trade in more than 50 different currencies of widely varying strengths.
Only Seychelles, Gambia and Benin offer visa-free access to all African travelers. Countries like Kenya, Senegal, Ethiopia and Namibia have relaxed their visa rules for Africans. Even traveling in one’s own region remains a challenge. Only the East African Community (EAC) and the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS) allow their citizens to move freely within these regional blocs.
Integration will remain elusive unless African countries simplify their customs procedures. How will African economies develop when small business owners are forced to pay exorbitant duties and go through piles of paperwork as their goods are stranded for weeks at customs terminals in African cities?
Africa has the highest average import tariffs and the highest average non-tariff barriers in the world. It is cheaper and easier for Africans to do business with Europe and Asia. It is therefore not surprising that intra-African exports represent only 16.6% of total exports.
The latest regional integration index in Africa reveals the continent’s low average integration score of just 0.327 out of 1. Infrastructure, trade, free movement of people and macroeconomic integration are the main criteria of the index.
How to achieve an integrated Africa if North Africa – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt – remains isolated from the rest of the continent? We must reject the long-held idea that North Africa is irreparably different from sub-Saharan Africa. Imagine how much could be accomplished if North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa worked more closely together.
All of this separates us, hampering the free movement of people and goods on the continent.
Regional integration and the dismantling of borders and attitudes imposed by colonization have long been a dream of Kwame Nkrumah. Perhaps courageous African leaders with the will to decolonize can realize this vision?
The path to follow
Integration is more than communities and regional economic agreements. An integrated Africa begins with individual traders and farmers working together to increase their capacity, capital and access to markets. From a small salesperson to big companies, this is true: alone we are small and weak, but working with other Africans makes us stronger.
The continent’s political leaders – along with their private sector and civil society partners – must decolonize themselves by integrating Africa. We need to see the introduction of favorable legal frameworks and pragmatic policies in countries that have ratified the AfCFTA. The AfCFTA itself is an attempt to decolonize trade in Africa.
Leaders need to show that they want to work together – rather than against – with each other. It will require a global mindset and vision; strong political will; effective strategies and a desire to overcome national and regional rivalries to break down barriers to trade and development.
Africa’s potential has remained unfulfilled for so long because we have continued to operate under guidelines and mindsets imposed on us by our predatory colonizers. Now is the time to do things differently. We must decolonize and integrate.
About the Author; Yamkela Makupula is the CEO of Diaz Reus Africa in Johannesburg and heads the Africa Growth Strategy division of this international law firm. She is one of the continent’s top economic advisers working with governments and the private sector in countries in East, West and Southern Africa.