African leaders launch a continental free trade zone

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari signs an agreement ahead of the lauching of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), during African Union summit in Niamey, Niger July 7, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 07 July 2019
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African leaders launch a continental free trade zone

  • Measure expected to create a $3.4 trillion economic bloc
  • Members have committed to eliminate tariffs on most goods

NIAMEY: African leaders met on Sunday to launch a continental free-trade zone that if successful would unite 1.3 billion people, create a $3.4 trillion economic bloc and usher in a new era of development.
After four years of talks, an agreement to form a 55-nation trade bloc was reached in March, paving the way for Sunday's African Union summit in Niger where attendees will unveil which nation will host the trade zone's headquarters, when trading will start and discuss how exactly it will work.
It is hoped that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) - the largest since the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994 - will help unlock Africa's long-stymied economic potential by boosting intra-regional trade, strengthening supply chains and spreading expertise.
"The eyes of the world are turned to Africa," Egyptian President and African Union Chairman Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said at the summit's opening ceremony.
AfCFTA "will reinforce our negotiating position on the international stage. It will represent an important step."
Africa has much catching up to do: its intra-regional trade accounted for just 17% of exports in 2017 versus 59% in Asia and 69% in Europe, and Africa has missed out on the economic booms that other trade blocs have experienced in recent decades.
Economists say significant challenges remain, including poor road and rail links, large areas of unrest, excessive border bureaucracy and petty corruption that have held back growth and integration.
Members have committed to eliminate tariffs on most goods, which will increase trade in the region by 15-25% in the medium term, but this would double if these other issues were dealt with, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates.
The IMF in a May report described a free-trade zone as a potential "economic game changer" of the kind that has boosted growth in Europe and North America, but it added a note of caution.
"Reducing tariffs alone is not sufficient," it said.
DIVERGENT INTERESTS
Africa already has an alphabet soup of competing and overlapping trade zones - ECOWAS in the west, EAC in the east, SADC in the south and COMESA in the east and south.
But only the EAC, driven mainly by Kenya, has made significant progress towards a common market in goods and services.
These regional economic communities (REC) will continue to trade among themselves as they do now. The role of AfCFTA is to liberalise trade among those member states that are not currently in the same REC, said Trudi Hartzenberg, director at Tralac, a South Africa-based trade law organisation.
The zone's potential clout received a boost on Tuesday when Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, agreed to sign the agreement at the summit. Benin has also since agreed to join. Fifty-four of the continent's 55 states have signed up, but only 25 have ratified.
One obstacle in negotiations will be the countries' conflicting motives.
For undiversified but relatively developed economies like Nigeria, which relies heavily on oil exports, the benefits of membership will likely be smaller than others, said John Ashbourne, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.
Nigerian officials have expressed concern that the country could be flooded with low-priced goods, confounding efforts to encourage moribund local manufacturing and expand farming.
In contrast, South Africa's manufacturers, which are among the most developed in Africa, could quickly expand outside their usual export markets and into West and North Africa, giving them an advantage over manufacturers from other countries, Ashbourne said.
The presidents of both countries are attending the summit.
The vast difference in countries' economic heft is another complicating factor in negotiations. Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa account for over 50% of Africa's cumulative GDP, while its six sovereign island nations represent about 1%.
"It will be important to address those disparities to ensure that special and differential treatments for the least developed countries are adopted and successfully implemented," said Landry Signe, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Africa Growth Initiative.
Regulations governing rules of origin, removal of non-tariff barriers and the development of a payments and settlements system are expected to be unveiled at the summit.


Huawei in public test as it unveils sanction-hit phone

Updated 19 September 2019

Huawei in public test as it unveils sanction-hit phone

  • Hit by US sanctions, Huawei's Mate 30 will not be allowed to use Google’s Play Store
  • Household-name services like WhatsApp, Instagram and Google Maps will be unavailable.
BERLIN: Chinese tech giant Huawei launches its latest high-end smartphone in Munich on Thursday, the first that could be void of popular Google apps because of US sanctions.
Observers are asking whether a phone without the Silicon Valley software that users have come to depend on can succeed, or whether Huawei will have found a way for buyers to install popular apps despite the constraints.
The company has maintained a veil of secrecy over its plans, set to be dropped at a 1200 GMT press conference revealing the Mate 30 and Mate 30 Pro models.
Huawei, targeted directly by the United States as part of a broader trade conflict with Beijing, was added to a “blacklist” in Washington in May.
Since then, it has been illegal for American firms to do business with the Chinese firm, suspected of espionage by President Donald Trump and his administration.
As a result, the new Mate will run on a freely available version of Android, the world’s most-used phone operating system that is owned by the search engine heavyweight.
While Mate 30 owners will experience little difference in the use of the system, the lack of Google’s Play Store — which provides access to hundreds of thousands of third-party apps and games as well as films, books and music — could hobble them.
Household-name services like WhatsApp, Instagram and Google Maps will be unavailable.
The tech press reports that this yawning gap in functionality has left some sellers reluctant to stock the new phones, fearing a wave of rapid-fire returns from dissatisfied customers.
Huawei president Richard Yu said at Berlin’s IFA electronics fair this month that his engineers found a “very simple” way to install the hottest apps without going via the Play Store.
Huawei could offer its own app store in a preliminary version, setting itself up as a competitor to the dominant Apple and Google offerings, observers speculate.
Over the longer term, the company could build out a similar “ecosystem” of devices, apps and services as the Silicon Valley companies that would bind users more closely to it.
The world’s second-largest smartphone maker after Samsung, Huawei earlier this month presented its proprietary operating system HarmonyOS, a potential replacement for Android.
The Mate 30 will not yet have HarmonyOS installed.
But it could make for a new round in the decades-old “OS wars” between Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s Mac OS, then Android versus Apple’s iOS.
Meanwhile, Eric Xu, current holder of Huawei’s rotating chief executive chair, has urged Europe to foster an alternative to Google and Apple.
That could provide an opening for Huawei to build up Europe’s market of 500 million well-off consumers as a stronghold against American rivals.
“If Europe had its own ecosystem for smart devices, Huawei would use it... that would resolve the problem of European digital dependency” on the United States, Xu told German business daily Handelsblatt.
He added that his company would be prepared to invest in developing such joint European-Chinese projects.