At dawn, many women across Africa make their way to their businesses. Some perch on the open backs of trucks loaded with agricultural produce to markets; others wear their high heels and suits as they head for offices in high-rise buildings. Irrespective of their working environments or workspaces (informal or formal), women contribute to the African economy and oil the economic engines of the continent. In fact, UN Women estimates that “70 per cent of informal cross-border trade in Africa is conducted by women traders.” However, women’s contribution to trade on the continent is yet to be maximized.
While women’s involvement in the economy is a common sight, their control and ownership of the instruments of trade is another debate entirely. This is not strange. It can be seen as an extension of established cultural norms about traditional gender roles in many African societies. As the world celebrates International Women’s Month with the campaign theme, #EmbraceEquity, it is important to ask: How do women contribute to trade policies on the continent, especially with the advent of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)? How will the AfCFTA impact women entrepreneurs and traders on the continent?
Everyone present at the Africa Prosperity Dialogues held in Ghana in January 2023 agreed on one thing: If properly executed, the AfCFTA will be the biggest free trade area in the world. It will open up African countries to more trading internally and externally. In the aftermath of the Dialogues, the outcomes of the convening have been presented to the African Union, and the Dialogues will be institutionalized as a yearly event hosted by Ghana. While that is a significant development, for the AfCFTA to truly deliver, it has to be more inclusive. Indeed, it needs to take everyone, including women who are integral to the trading value chains, along.
Women are integral to the development of any society. Yet, current statistics on women’s activities across different spaces state otherwise. According to the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), gender imbalance is rife in the global value chain system. One of the ways this manifests is in policy making. Despite women’s involvement in cross-border trading, policymakers hardly include women’s voices in the drafting and execution of policies that affect them, this World Bank report posits. In 2022, in response to the disparity, the Assembly of the Heads of State and Government of the African Union pledged to improve access to opportunities in the implementation of the AfCFTA through programmes targeted at “young Africans, women, and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)…”
This pledge further illustrated (or highlighted) that in order for AfCFTA to positively impact women, collective action has to be taken. Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, the Ghanaian Minister of Communications, explains: “We can’t leave our women and girls.” Consequently, for African countries to take their pride of place in the comity of nations, women have to be central to the continent’s strategy to greatness. Additionally, women’s voices are important to the AfCFTA because they understand how the issues at hand affect them, and can engineer proper execution of the agreement, especially catering to their own needs as well as that of the larger populace.
First, the success of the AfCFTA is important to every aspect of African life—economic, political, security, foreign relations, and more. The policy must be approached from a holistic perspective. “The AfCFTA is not just a means to trade on the continent, it can also be a means to reduce conflict… We have to design the security architecture that recognises that trade and business is at the core of development,” advised Dr. Catherine Chinedum Aniagolu–Okoye, Regional Director, West Africa for Ford Foundation.
Some speakers emphasized collective action; this is critical, posits Dr Nkiru Balonwu—Founder, Africa Soft Power Group and Board Member, Africa Prosperity Network—stressing that positive change “requires decisive and collective action.” For Dr. Balonwu, decisive action means everyone involved in policymaking taking the right steps in the right directions, while collective action requires letting go of ego. She believes “this will take a lot of openness, information sharing and complementary efforts from everyone (individuals, organizations, institutions and governments) who want to see a more buoyant Africa in the era of the AfCFTA. We want Africa’s prosperity? Then we cannot afford to work in silos.”
Collective action is also the basis for Africa trading with itself and the rest of the world. “An Africa that produces its people’s needs is not just the Africa we want, it is the Africa we need,” stated Ahunna Eziakonwa, UN Assistant Secretary-General, and Director, Regional Bureau for Africa (UNDP). Doing this means that new trading avenues will open for the continent, empowering it to set new rules that work for it. “Africa can move from economies that are only based on raw material extraction, to those that are driven by higher productivity, industrialisation, and regional value chains.”
Emily Mburu-Ndoria, the Director of Trade in Services, Investments, Intellectual Property Rights and Digital Trade (AfCFTA) also agreed that for the AfCFTA to thrive, the continent has to trade with the world as a common force. To do this, she says it is critical to ask: “What are we are doing to come up with a common African market?”
This cannot be achieved through the business-as-usual practices pre-AfCFTA. To do this successfully, the strategy has to “widen to investors…traders, business persons in general,” stated Joy Kategekwa, Senior Strategy Advisor, UNDP Africa.
Keying into the United Nations’ theme for IWD 2023, ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’, one of the ways to scale impact is to embrace digital solutions. Corine Mbiaketcha, former Vice President and Country Manager, East Africa, Visa states that for the digital solutions to have far-reaching impact, it must also be embedded into the educational system. “Let’s…push our education system to include digital skills in the curriculum so that our youth have access easily because the brightest brains are sitting on this continent.”
“The tremendous growth of digital technology…offers us a new opportunity to take another look at our capacity to deliver resources. We have at our fingertips the computing and digital resources to overcome many of the coordination problems that have made the implementation of some of these grand plans for simple African markets so difficult to achieve,” continued Ursula Owusu-Ekuful. Doing this would amount to using one stone to kill several birds. Asides increased trading, digital solutions allow the continent to scale quickly, bridging lingual, gender and geographical differences faster.
“Political will backed by the commitment of business is how we achieve the vision of our founding leaders for a united, prosperous Africa, where the wealth of Africa benefits first the people and continent of Africa,” echoed Hannah Awuku, Executive Secretary, Africa Prosperity Network.”
As we aim to achieve the goals of the AfCFTA, we must remember that true representation and inclusion are necessary for the for agreement to have its intended impact. By featuring these women thought leaders, the Africa Prosperity Dialogues took a step in that direction.
Yet, more needs to be done. As the continent moves towards more active participation for women, we hope that that the second edition of the Dialogues as well as similar convenings will have more women voices represented, to better reflect the increasing important of inclusion on the continent.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TradeMark Africa.