Bridging the gap: Communications for the Continental Free Trade Area

12 February 2016

The Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) holds incredible potential for the African continent. Greater focus on communications will be required in order for that potential to be realised. 


In some circles, the benefits of the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) are well known: the establishment of one integrated African market; a 52 percent increase in intra-African trade; a 6 percent  increase in African exports; significant job creation; and long-term sustainable development. But for many others, including the millions of the people who could reap real, life-changing benefits, the CFTA is relatively unknown.

Jackie Gabriel, the Zambian owner of a Lusaka-based textile company, has aspirations of exporting to East and West Africa. When asked about accessing these new markets, Jackie lists numerous barriers that stand in her way. “All of the paperwork, the shipping costs, it is just too expensive and difficult." Jackie had never heard of the CFTA, let alone what it could do for her and her business. She, like many other people across the African continent, is disconnected from the continental integration agenda – an agenda created to serve people like her.

While the CFTA negotiations will be carried out by government negotiators and informed by policy experts, at its core, the CFTA is about people—it is people who will benefit in terms of sustainable development, and it is people, especially entrepreneurs and business owners, who will be better able to trade once the CFTA is implemented. But for the potential of the CFTA to become a reality, people must be more connected to the negotiations through better communications. In particular, the success of the agreement hinges on communication with the private sector; between the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and the African Union Commission (AUC); and with the general public.

Communication with the private sector

Trade is conducted by the private sector, yet negotiated by governments. For trade’s potential to be realised, the negotiations must reflect the needs of the private sector and be conducted in a manner that will facilitate and unlock new businesses opportunities. For that to happen, strong communication with the private sector will be critical.

Not only is private sector communication key in helping to shape the negotiations, it will also be crucial in mobilising domestic support for the CFTA. This will be true both as the CFTA is negotiated and after negotiations are finished, when the CFTA will be subject to ratification and implementation at the national and regional levels.

Improving communication with the private sector must be addressed from a variety of angles. The AUC’s initiatives to establish a Trade Observatory and African Business Council, as well as regional and national business councils and chambers of commerce, have a significant role to play. So, too, do civil society organisations and NGOs that can help strengthen lines of communication between the private sector and the negotiators. Creative and novel approaches, like online forums and crowdsourcing tools that make gathering information and communicating across a vast continent much easier, are also needed.  

REC-AUC communication

Along with improving communication with the private sector, strengthening communication between the RECs and the AUC will also be necessary in bringing the CFTA to fruition. The AUC is tasked with the difficult challenge of coordinating and facilitating successful negotiations. Accordingly, significant focus has been placed on strengthening the AUC's capacity, including a considerable mobilisation of resources on the part of development partners towards hiring technical experts to establish a dedicated CFTA Unit at the AUC.

The African Union’s member states envisaged the RECs as the building blocks of the CFTA. The RECs will be even more important given recent progress towards continental integration with three RECs (SADC-COMESA-EAC) coming together to launch the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) in June 2015. But in practice, limitations on time and resources can make communication between the RECs and the AUC difficult. Many REC activities exist in isolation, without any formal reporting back to the AUC; similarly, many AUC initiatives do not effectively integrate the RECs.

As the negotiations for the CFTA move forward, this burden will only increase. The negotiations will require a considerable amount of technical work to harmonise differences across a range of difficult and complex issues, including tariff liberalisation; rules of origin; dispute settlement; customs and transit procedures; non-tariff barriers; trade remedies; technical barriers to trade; and sanitary and phytosanitary measures. In order for progress to be made, and for the AUC to effectively facilitate and coordinate a complex negotiating process, considerable coordination and communication between the RECs and the AUC will be required. Communications must be elevated as a priority for managers and development partners. This should include managers making communications a core responsibility for their teams and development partners, increasing their willingness to support communications staff at both the RECs and the AUC. Placing an AUC staff member dedicated to supporting the CFTA at each one of the RECs could be a particularly effective approach.

Communicating with the public

Here, we come back to Jackie. The CFTA has significant potential to improve the lives of millions of people across the African continent. Unfortunately, many of those people are relatively unaware of the CFTA. While mega-regional trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) receive widespread coverage, international and domestic media have remained relatively quiet regarding the CFTA and its potential benefits, a catch-22 whereby the media will not cover it until enough people are interested in learning about it.

It is clear that significant work needs to be done to make the benefits of the CFTA more salient to its intended beneficiaries. Increased public awareness is important so that people can call their representatives to action in support of the CFTA, and so that they can take advantage of new opportunities presented by the CFTA as they become available.

The CFTA is in need of a significant public awareness and public relations campaign. Some progress has already been made: the AUC has developed a CFTA-focused communications strategy, and organised the CFTA negotiations launch event. That event, which took place in Johannesburg in June 2015, helped raise the profile of the CFTA and earned considerable media coverage (by inter alia, the BBC, Financial Times, and Al Jazeera). However, for the CFTA to receive the widespread support necessary for approval and implementation, this momentum needs to continue with additional events and regular media engagement. In order for it to work, the CFTA needs to be known.


Communications is not always attractive or exciting. Nor is it easy to find development partners or managers who are interested in dedicating precious time and resources to communications activities. But for the CFTA negotiations to be successful, and ultimately, for the CFTA to reach its intended beneficiaries, like Jackie, greater focus on communications will be necessary. 


Author: Luke Warford works in the Africa practice at global strategic consulting firm Albright Stonebridge Group. Previously, he was as a Fulbright-Clinton Fellow in the African Union Commission’s Department of Trade and Industry based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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