OBADHA: The Tripartite Free Trade Area – a concept whose time was overdue

Tripartite Free Trade Area
Tripartite Free Trade Area

Welcome to the new Africa, the land of the brave and the new frontier of opportunity.

Africa’s renaissance is slowly taking shape; the shackles are falling off, and scales have dropped from our eyes for our vision seems so much brighter, clearer and decisive.

Myopia and foreign agendas that once divided Africa are diminishing, for once Africa is prioritising her interests, the coast seems clear of the things that bound us.

Regional trading blocs are critical networks through which African countries can cushion themselves against global trade meltdown shocks.

The COMESA-EAC-SADC tripartite Free Trade Area has heralded a new dawn for its people.

Pending signing of the legal instruments, this is the single biggest trading bloc in Africa.

Let us reminisce here devoid of any nostalgia.

Africa was and still is involved in trade abominations of many kinds with damning effects.

Does anyone know of an African country whose biggest trading and equal partner is another African country?

Does it make sense that it is very costly to call an African country next door compared to calling a country in Europe or America?

This action is an impediment to intra-Africa business. When, by rare chance, we hear that a country next door manufactures an item do we promptly by-pass it (ostensibly for its low quality) for an equal product made overseas? Well, this has been our lot; it still is to a good extent.


To a new awakening. The new kid of Africa’s trading blocs spans literally from ‘Cape’ to ‘Cairo’, a whopping 16750 kilometres.

With a combined population of over 600 million people in 26 African countries whose gross combined GDP is over 1 trillion US dollars, the party is for real!

The TFTA will set up a joint framework for preferential tariffs to entice the movement of goods across member countries.

Africa, however, remains a marginal player in world trade, accounting for only 2.8 per cent of world exports and 2.5 per cent of global imports in the decade from 2000 to 2010.

Total intra-African trade reached $130.1 billion in 2011, representing 11.3 percent of African trade with the world.


The Potential and Constraints of Africa’s Regional Trading Blocks

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, – UNCTAD report of Africa 2013, ‘Intra-African trade has enormous potential to create employment, catalyse investment and foster growth in Africa’.

However, Africa’s underdeveloped production capacity and export regimes coupled with a high reliance on primary export commodities are constraining factors.

Similarly, African governments approach to regional integration on the continent has so far focused more on the elimination of trade barriers and less on the development of the productive capacities necessary for business.

The former and the latter are of equal importance, and now attention should be given to enhancing production to take advantage of the preferential trade regimes under trading blocs.

Way Forward?

Regional trade blocs offer growth benefits to members by providing domestic firms with access to a larger market, enabling them to exploit economies of scale and overcome limitations imposed by the small size of national economies.

They spur growth by intensifying competition and compelling domestic firms to higher efficiency and productivity.

This growth ultimately influences strategic company decisions and helps create a positive impact on employment, investment, and growth in national economies.

A rainbow is looming large in the sky after a long storm; streaks of intense sunrays are piercing through the gloomy past of Africa’s meagre trade cooperation.

For the pessimists: this is not just a lull in the storm but a real breakthrough. Is it not time we had an Africa-wide trading bloc? It is feasible and possible.

The writing is on the wall; no one can afford to snub the resulting vast and fastest growing world market; ignore it at your peril!

A proverb from Sierra Leone goes, “Life is like riding a bicycle uphill, you don’t fall off until you stop pedalling”. Africa, keep pedalling hard!


Written by Vincent Obadha

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