Regional integration is proving to be a powerful strategy for helping Africa to overcome some of the barriers faced by individual states. As well as providing a major market place of more than 389 million consumers, COMESA is also working to promote peace and security.

What are the key advantages of regional integration in Africa?

The elimination of trade barriers and non-tariff barriers to trade and the creation of a single market to bring about economies of scale for production and consumption. Also, the elimination of multiple border crossings will reduce transaction costs and hence contribute to the competitiveness of the African economy. Both cross-border and foreign direct investors would benefit from the single market as transaction costs would be minimised and a large consumer market created. And the ethnic fault lines that currently bedevil some countries would be minimised as political and economic governance would be based on meritocracy as opposed to patrimony.

What are the priorities for COMESA’s regional integration agenda?

The COMESA market integration strategy is based on trade and investment. Currently, COMESA has a fully functioning free trade area that was launched in 2000 and has seen intra-COMESA trade increase from US$3.1 billion (€2.4 bn) to US$17.2 billion (€13.3 bn) in 2009. Current priorities for COMESA include launching the COMESA Custom Union in 2012 and making the COMESA Common Investment Area operational – to stimulate employment creation, economic diversification and sustainable and equitable development. Then there are the ongoing preparations for the envisaged Africa Free Trade Area and implementation of infrastructure projects that enhance interconnectivity between and among COMESA member states.

What benefits can be seen so far?

The free trade area has produced benefits for exporters and consumers. Intra-COMESA trade minimised the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis. Over the years, the COMESA region has seen national companies invest in other COMESA countries to the extent that cross-border investment has become a critical dynamic for regional value chains. The COMESA regional infrastructure master plan has also contributed to the implementation of regional infrastructure networks. COMESA has, through its peace and security programme, contributed to the African Union programme of conflict prevention and resolution and to creating a regional consciousness.

Can you elaborate on the role played by agricultural trade as a vehicle for regional economic integration?

Given that COMESA economies are essentially agrarian, the liberalisation of trade has seen trade in agriculture products account for about 60% of intra-COMESA trade. To boost further trade in agricultural commodities COMESA has a robust programme to address sanitary and phytosanitary issues, which entails agreeing on regional standards.

What other sectors would benefit from policy integration in Africa?

Other sectors that are part of the integration agenda include infrastructure development, industrial development, free movement of persons, creation of a single currency, agricultural development and harnessing science and technology for development.

How can public policy institutions influence public policy to the benefit of Africa, and why should this role be strengthened?

There is no doubt that research institutions, universities and think tanks play a critical role in contributing to the process of regional integration by serving either as resource centres for national governments and regional organisations or providing critiques and objective perspectives of what should be done differently and knowledge sharing. However, for this to happen, governments have to provide funding to these institutions as their reliance on foreign funding makes them at times focus on issues that are not relevant to African development and regional integration.

What are the prospects for a successful Tripartite Free Trade Area (FTA)?

The prospects for the COMESA, East African Community (EAC) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) Tripartite FTA are good on the basis of the road map agreed upon. Negotiations for what will be Africa’s largest FTA commence this year and will be concluding in the next 24 months. Other pillars of the Tripartite programme, namely infrastructure development and industrialisation, are being pursued simultaneously. The Tripartite FTA has a combined population of 565 million and a US$1 trillion (€773 bn) economy. What a mouth watering prospect for business!

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