On 21 July 2021, hundreds of young entrepreneurs from across the African continent gathered to discuss the opportunities open to youth through the new African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), in a unique pan-African virtual conversation convened by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and YouLead, a continent-wide youth platform.
In the first of a series of “Fireside Chats” focusing on various opportunities and challenges in the implementation of the AfCFTA, the debate attracted over 900 registered participants, and reached over one million youth through live broadcast on social media. The solution–oriented conversation brought together young practitioners engaged in cross-border trade in sectors like agricultural production, digitally–enabled agriculture services, media, government advisory, talent recruitment, and enterprise development among others.
The collective message from Africa’s young people is clear: they are actors - not spectators – in turning the magic of the “One African Market” into reality and making the AfCFTA work – a task they have already taken on with full force.
The convenor and host, UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Africa Director Ahunna Eziakonwa, declared “the AfCFTA is an agenda that is as achievable as it is ambitious. We need to move into a space where we believe in the talent and the quality that lies on the African continent,” emphasized Ms. Eziakonwa, as she expressed appreciation for the calibre of Africa’s youth today, who do not seek funding, but equity.
Ms. Eziakonwa explained that the Fireside Chats are a space UNDP is offering to discuss advancements in bringing the AfCFTA promise to life. These spaces keep a finger on the pulse by ensuring that this groundbreaking agreement transforms the lives of all Africans and increases shared prosperity.
The conversation was not only co-organized but also co-led by youth. Astria Fataki, a visionary young leader making waves in the energy sector across Africa, is the Founder and CEO of ISIS Development and President of Energy Generation that works across 17 countries, co-hosted the event with the UN Assistant Secretary-General. “Young entrepreneurs are avid for more information on what the new free trade area could mean for them. They are keen to have more information on how to navigate the differences and the new joint processes between various African countries so that they can have a true impact in various African countries,” she explained.
Ivan Atuyambe, Founder and Director of YouLead Africa, shared the platform’s passion to mobilize, connect and empower young transformative leaders in policy and business spheres. Their work on youth in business and enterprise promotes solutions for an enabling policy environment and affirmative action in support for Africa’s young entrepreneurs, while addressing their individual and firm capacity gaps.
In sharing an update on what is happening at the AfCFTA, Peter Joy Serwoono, Senior Advisor to the Secretary General of the AfCFTA, said 54 of Africa’s 55 nations had signed the AfCFTA, 40 have ratified it, 42 had tabled offers of preferential market access on trade in goods, and 35 on trade in services. He outlined some of the key initiatives that the Secretary General was taking in mobilizing trade finance, frontloading the E-commerce negotiations to draw in young people and building a Secretariat with a bottom-heavy pyramid structure to bring in as many young people as possible at the entry and mid-level, and to advance the continent’s dreams of integration.
“There are plans to establish an AfCFTA Academy at the AfCFTA Secretariat, which will equip young people with knowledge about the AfCFTA. The aim is that once they return to their countries, these youth will act as trainers and facilitators for other young people.”
The Fireside Chat was especially rich in practical, inspirational anecdotes and nuggets of wisdom shared by entrepreneurs, who called on other youth to take action in starting businesses that could benefit from opportunities in the AfCFTA.
Edith Njage, CEO and Director of Arielle Roaring for Africa Ltd (ARFA) – an enterprise that provides disruptive business models to entrepreneurial finance and a leader in the digital era – spoke of her dream to create over 100,000 jobs in Africa by 2030 - 50,000 of which she has already done through direct and indirect business ventures. Registered in Kenya, her company works in Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. She called on her fellow youth to take advantage of the breadth of the African market.
“You might have the right product or service but operate in the wrong market. With the Agreement, you can move into other markets.” She stressed the need to position sustainability in businesses from the start to ensure they are green and environment friendly.
“One thing that we are still not doing intentionally is sustainable business,” she explained. “This means that your business actually leaves a legacy. This needs to be integrated in the early stages of a business, especially for start-ups”. Calling for excellence, she rallied a push for greatness: “Africa: We cannot be complacent. We cannot be mediocre. We have to stand out and be the best.”
Tamara Moutotekema Boussamba, CEO of AGRIDIS,is a Gabonese entrepreneur in agriculture producing cassava for export. She spoke of the formidable opportunity in the AfCFTA - one which allows young farmers to deploy their activities in other countries. She called for government interventions in 3 areas: harmonizing infrastructure, supporting production of competitive quality products, and targeted support to entrepreneurs. She deploys digital solutions to expand access to information for other farmers on critical factors like pricing, and her application “Wagui”, is improving livelihoods. “Infrastructure development and the harmonization of administrative procedures are fundamental for the AfCFTA’s success, especially when it comes to trade in agricultural products.”
Adebola Williams, Co-founder and CEO of RED for Africa, Statecraft Inc., The Future Awards Africa and YNaija, spoke about some of the challenges that require action to favour the services sector continentally. Trust in African capacity and expertise is a major issue, according to the Nigerian businessman, as the AfCFTA would require championing African products. Logistics also need urgent action and facilitation of the platform of Africans across Africa. “You cannot use one brush to paint everyone. There is a bias and trust deficit that I deal with every day as a Nigerian, trading across the continent - either as a result of stereotypes or negative storytelling, caused by fellow citizens,” explained Mr. Williams.
He called for positive storytelling about Africa and advised leaders to dedicate time in the branding and positive storytelling of African goods and services to counter biases about African products.
“We have the wrong perception that entrepreneurship in Africa is the remedy to unemployment, drawing to the field many who are not passionate about business, who do not have the drive to overcome obstacles,” highlighted Abideen Olasupo, Co-Founder and CEO of dHub Innovation Centre. Providing advice to youth trying to develop their business, he explained that in the export market, especially with the AfCFTA, there is no space for copycats and youth have to look at what their added value is.
The conversation on social media raised a lot of interest – with questions about promoting youth engagement, impacts of insecurity, support packages or delivering on market deals in the AfCFTA and the specific support both UNDP and the AfCFTA Secretariat are planning to strengthen the capacities of young people to benefit from the opportunities created by the AfCFTA.
The AfCFTA Secretariat noted requests by youth around the urgency to get the AfCFTA to young people on the ground, challenges with finance, and support for trade facilitation and strong capacity building work, as well as continued engagement with youth. An upcoming youth conference bringing together young people to talk about the AfCFTA and shape the direction of its implementation was announced by the AfCFTA Secretariat.
The Youth Alliance for Leadership and Development in Africa (YALDA) - a Harvard African Students Association mobilizing around building Africa for Africa, announced a new competition – The Africa Umoja Campaign – to be launched on 31 July, in partnership with UNECA, ITC, the AfCFTA Secretariat, and UNDP. Through the competition, youth themselves will have the opportunity to lead an awareness campaign where infographics, essays and animations will help young people across Africa understand what the AfCFTA really means for them.
UNDP stressed its commitment to continue to work with youth in support for attaining AfCFTA objectives.