African Union bets on technology to keep trade pact on track

In Summary

• The African Union Commission has received with open hands many offers of support to help address these concerns that have come from the continental private sector, notably the African Virtual Trade-Diplomacy Platform

• The AVDP and the AVRIVA concept aim to rally support towards a campaign to keep the AfCFTA on track using technology by enabling Member States to participate effectively and securely in the outstanding negotiations of the AfCFTA.


In a bid to forestall delays in the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), an agreement designed to create the world’s largest free-trade zone judged by membership, the African Union (AU) believes technology is the magic elixir that can help close out the outstanding AfCFTA negotiations.In a statement on August 14, the AU said AfCFTA negotiations should ideally move online amid travel restrictions and physical distancing requirements imposed by governments to control the spread of Covid-19 pandemic.

“For the current AfCFTA operationalization timeline of 1st January 2021 to be met, and the decision of African Leaders on the fast-tracking of processes leading to the commencement of trading to be implemented, outstanding AfCFTA negotiations must move online too,” the AU said in a statement.

However, some AU member states “have outlined a number of concerns regarding the use of virtual systems, especially regarding infrastructure reliability, security and confidentiality,” AU says.

To address the concerns, the AU has constituted a committee of experts, including representatives from member states, AU Commission and security and information technology specialists to examine a new policy framework called AVRIVA, which among other objectives should guide how the AU selects virtual platforms for trade diplomacy and other integration activities.As trade gradually opens and air travel resumes, the AU has played a critical role in supporting technology-based solutions to support intra-African trade.

One of the more intriguing digital technologies the AU hopes will re-catalyze free movement and thus boost intra-Africa trade is PanaBIOS, a standardized and tamper-proof transcontinental digital applications suite used in Covid-19 monitoring, spatial risk factors analytics, mass testing, hotline scanning, and cross border contact tracing. It is resourced by a group of pan-African private sector organisations marshalled by AfroChampions.

PanaBIOS relies on digitized testing and geolocation records to power predictive analytics, developed as part of an R&D partnership with Koldchain BioCordon, a Kenyan-registered group with a presence in the US, that will help authorities pre-identify infection hotspots and stem importation of Covid-19 cases.

It does so however without rousing the fierce privacy concerns that have stalled previous attempts by the likes of Google and Apple. According to the AU’s draft DABBIT protocol which guides the design of PanaBIOS, data must be de-identified and aggregated to prevent privacy breaches.

The technology aligns Africa economic recovery strategies with public health objectives through improved Covid-19 surveillance and data analysis, consequently allowing economic activity to resume in countries and goods and services to move across borders without gambling with infections.According to the PanaBIOS consortium, the digital solution “supports the emergence of standardized protocols to verify the health status of international travelers across borders and thereby directly facilitates the reopening of regional borders to workers and goods.”

Adoption of PanaBIOS will ensure travelers use Covid-19 test results obtained in one country to satisfy port clearance requirements across the continent. This will remove duplication of travel requirements such as repeated Covid-19 tests and, if successful, help address some of the fragmentation and confusion that is already being witnessed. Just within the East African Community, tit-for-tat escalations of border entry requirements are threatening to derail regional trade and economic cohesion.

The AU remains “hopeful that digital technologies can play a very powerful role in driving positive cooperation among Member States for a safe, smart and harmonised reopening process” as the continent implements measures to curb the Covid-19 pandemic.AfCFTA is one of the flagship projects of the First Ten-Year Implementation Plan (2014-2023) under the AU’s Agenda 2063.According to the AU, Africa has a combined gross domestic product of USD$3.4 trillion. If implemented, AfCFTA will become the world’s biggest trade area by number of countries participating.

While AU leadership has expressed optimism in AfCFTA, member states’ preparedness in making the agreement a reality differ considerably, with ratification having delayed for months in some cases.The deal requires African countries to open borders. However, some nations are involved in border spats that threaten the One Africa vision under AfCFTA.

In August last year, Nigeria closed its borders with Benin.Additionally, Africa needs to plug annual infrastructure financing deficits amounting to USD188 billion as well as implement cleverer and more coordinated fiscal and monetary policies to realise free trade, the African Development Bank says.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) predicts a drop in Africa's growth this year from an initial estimate of 3.2 per cent to between 2.8 per cent and about zero percent due to Covid-19 pandemic.Because of Covid-19, about 20 million people may be forced into poverty in a continent where about 300 million do not afford one meal a day.

The vast number of enterprises on the continent are tiny SMEs, many in the informal sector, who have been badly hit by the pandemic. Not surprisingly, the AU also plans to introduce a new “AFCFTA Number” protocol to help SMEs take better advantage of e-trading and e-commerce opportunities to expand across the continent on the back of the Upon careful analysis, the incorporation into the Open Corridor Initiative of Pan-African technology platforms, such as PanaBIOS, which, if widely adopted, can enable citizens of African countries to travel across borders, whilst tracking any surges in infection; and the e-commerce interoperability framework, anchored to the AFCFTA Number concept, are long overdue.

It is actually surprising that regional institutions like the AU haven’t embraced more of such tools given how much emphasis on e-government we have seen in individual member states of late. It is a no-brainer that digital solutions can be very cost-effective and quicker to deploy ahead of hard infrastructure.But better late than ever, the AU’s newfound commitment to technology is at the very least commendable and one that shall be followed keenly by analysts.

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