Op-ed: Will the COVID-19 pandemic impact the implementation of the AfCFTA?

28 April, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is a tragic opportunity to best prepare the AfCFTA Secretariat to take revolutionary steps towards greater intra-African trade. If anything, this novel virus has successfully highlighted the interconnectedness of African issues, which requires an interconnected African response. The shifts created by the coronavirus will definitely shape some of the thinking and planning around implementing the AfCFTA. Consequently, there are four points to consider: mass collaboration, artificial intelligence, big science and government services.

Mass collaboration

COVID-19 has compelled African governments to create an enabling environment for innovation and thereby the creation of flexible, fast and competitive services. This means governments must encourage new ideas and technologies and become essential partners in shaping the transition to new technological and economic frameworks. Governments must also support these processes through comprehensive regulation.

The post-COVID-19 African economy offers the opportunity to leapfrog directly to a more digital and service-based development model. Although the rate of technology uptake across the continent is still too slow and the technology gap with other continents still too wide, the AfCFTA Secretariat must promote the use of joint ICT infrastructure to standardize customs procedures. After all, effective trade facilitation among the AfCFTA member countries requires efficient trade coordination.

Artificial intelligence 

The fight against COVID-19 has highlighted the need for technological readiness at the national level; countries must be adequately prepared for future challenges. Technological readiness translates into the capacity to develop and manipulate new technology for local use and export. This explains why millions of connected devices have increased the ability for artificial intelligence (AI) to track and trace consignments in the supply chain along trade routes.

The society that solves the problem of intelligence will lead the future. AI boosts productivity by creating entirely new ways of triggering exponential growth and allocating resources more efficiently. The success of the AfCFTA depends heavily on the speed of the customs clearing processes, which involves a lot of computing power. In government, AI can improve the delivery of essential services to citizens as well as create millions of new jobs.

Data science

Because data supports evidence-based decision making, it is necessary that the AfCFTA Secretariat make use of a trade portal to serve a channel of information flow.
Data has become the raw material of the information economy and whoever has access to data has the power. For example, data is used in precision agricultural systems to optimize farms by predicting droughts and floods as well as anticipating outbreaks of pests and disease. Below is some trade-related data highlighting the difference in border and customs efficiencies of African countries.

Time to import and export


Indicator  Sub-Saharan Africa OECD High Income
Time to export: Border compliance  4d 1h and 18m 12h and 30m
Time to export: Documentary compliance  3d and 48m 2h and 24m
Time to import: Border compliance  5d 6h and 18m 8h and 30m
Time to import: Documentary compliance  4d 1h and 42m 3h and 24m


Cost to import and export


Indicator  Sub-Saharan Africa OECD High Income
Cost to export: Border compliance  605.8 USD 139.1 USD
Cost to export: Documentary compliance  168.8 USD 35.2 USD
Cost to import: Border compliance  684.3 USD 100.2 USD
Cost to import: Documentary compliance  283.5 USD 24.9 USD

Source: UNCTAD based on data from the World Bank

Government services 

Africa’s general performance in the area of Trading across Borders on the 2019 World Bank Doing Business Index is dismal. Inefficiency of the clearance process by border control agencies and customs is the major issue. Blockchain technology offers a trade platform that provides global shipping transactions with a secure, real-time exchange of supply-chain data and paperwork. It reduces costs, eliminates delays and makes the trade environment more predictable for conducting intra-African trade. The AfCFTA Secretariat will do well to have systems built on the blockchain technology. Stakeholders must agree on how the system, data and investment in blockchain will be led and managed. Consensus on this matter will improve overall trade compliance and reduce trade risks.


The AfCFTA will be successfully implemented when traders and border officials apply the technical tools for implementing and measuring trade facilitation. This requires relevant skills training to streamline trade procedures. Trade regulations must also be kept up to date and published regularly via an integrated border IT system that allows for collaboration between border agencies.

The collective will of the African people will ultimately determine the successful implementation of AfCFTA. The carnage being caused by the COVID-19 pandemic provides a good reference point for a worst-case-scenario planning and simulation. These lessons learned must be incorporated into the policies and operational strategies of the AfCFTA.

Stefanus Naukushu Ndeu is a Productivity 4.0 specialist, Agenda 2063 Youth Champion, author, trainer, entrepreneur, and speaker.