AfCFTA five years later, what are the obstacles ?

19 April 2024


In 2019, when 54 of the 55 African Union member states ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)—Eritrea the only outsider—it marked the launch of a pan-Africanist vision: the enabling of intra-African free trade to promote inclusive and sustainable development on a continent where many economists agree the pace of socioeconomic development has slowed from 50 years ago. As negotiations towards the ultimate objective of a vast single, liberalised market have progressed, AfCFTA’s supporters are shifting focus from sovereignty to the potential economic benefits. What obstacles remain for this ambitious project for African economic integration?


Nicolas Hanin is a senior consultant at Concerto Paris. A specialist in developing corporate communications and public affairs strategies, Nicolas advises public institutions and private sector players. Contact Nicolas at for more information or to find out how Concerto can help you.

Historic opportunity for African development… or Trojan Horse for outsiders?

There is no shortage of arguments in favour of the model of an intra-continental free trade agreement to benefit Africa as elsewhere in the world. Some see it as an accelerator of industrialisation, others as a cornerstone of African self-determination and resilience against crisis. Prospects are promising: according to the World Bank, the gradual elimination of customs tariffs and non-tariff barriers and promotion of value chains could over time boost African GDP by 7% (US$ 450 billion) by 2035.  That would mark quite a transformation from Africa’s current weakness. In 2019, according to Afreximbank, intra-African trade stood at just 14.4% of Africa’s total, compared with 52% for Asia and 73% within the European Union. Such heavy reliance on outside trade underlines Africa’s vulnerability to external economic fluctuations. One needs only think of China, a major source of FDI into Africa, but in sharp decline. But the AfCFTA model itself is not without its dangers, due to some of Africa’s inherent weaknesses. Unlike the European single market or within NAFTA in North America, many African countries are fragile and reliant on external aid and technical assistance. AfCFTA could in fact boost this, by giving external parties easier access to all African markets, exploiting the weaknesses of the most fragile economies. This risk is not just theoretical, with the example of Kenya particularly revealing. In December 2023, the continent's ninth-largest economy signed an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union. Against the advice of the other member states of the East African Community (EAC), the country intends to take advantage of these new commercial outlets for its exports of fruit, vegetables and, in particular, flowers. Now Kenya's powerful companies "can import inputs for production duty-free, which it can then export to its neighbours in the sub-region, who do not benefit from this advantage", confides Belgian lawyer Marc Maes. Another risk to AfCFTA’s integrity lies in the domestic protection measures governments have put in place in countries, as some of Africa’s economic heavyweights take full advantage to grow their businesses away from foreign competition. Clearly, there is work to be done to ensure that AfCFTA itself is fit for purpose.  

Coups d'état, unequal markets, different currencies… many sticking points

There are many sticking points in the way of realising the full AfCFTA vision. While 54 countries' adoption of the treaty is an undeniable diplomatic success, the actual implementation is proving far more complex. Despite notable successes in certain sectors, notably food (tea, coffee, meat, and fruit), only 96 products covered by the agreement were traded between less than ten African countries in 2023. For the vision to be realised, commitment to overcoming the obstacles is needed. Now is the time for technical negotiations between countries, which must agree to reduce their national customs revenues and expect positive effects in the longer term. A paradigm shift needs to take place, with customs duties no longer seen as a means of generating revenue for governments, but as a lever for incipient industrialisation. It is particularly urgent to address one of the most contentious issues: the definition of product-specific rules of origin in the calculation of the percentage of local production of a given product. In this respect, each country must establish an "AfCFTA strategy" that is closely in line with its national competitiveness policy, in order to prepare the various sectors in advance for opening up to the continental market. Yet a degree of pragmatism and realism is also needed about the distance still to be travelled. The very infrastructure needed to make AfCFTA functional is both expensive to build, and lacking. Many countries do not currently have the border facilities required to develop a true free trade area. This logistical weakness limits the ability of African countries to increase their continental exports in the medium term. Of course, not least, there are political and security challenges across the continent. In West Africa alone, the surge in military coups in recent years and the subsequent application of regional sanctions have put a stop to the drive towards economic and political integration between African states. Such major difficulties underline the challenges that the AfCFTA vision faces, and why impatient comparisons with the likes of the EU integration model, established within the framework of industrialised economies, are inappropriate. On the slow pace of AfCFTA rollout, Abdou Diop, Managing Partner of Mazars, puts it well: “The EU took a long time to build. We are a little too impatient with AfCFTA. There are still a good ten years to go before we achieve the 4% growth targets set by AfCFTA”.