Africa’s youth must drive – and benefit from – the African Continental Free Trade Agreement

January 10, 2022

Image: Envato Elements

By integrating African economies, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement has the potential to unlock a market of 1.3 billion people. It is an important step towards Africa’s economic transformation. Removing barriers to intra-continental trade is critical for incentivizing the production of goods and services, and creating market opportunities and much needed jobs for Africa’s youth. 

To fully maximize the Agreement’s promises and benefits, and to harness innovative ideas, solutions and actions, Africa’s youth must be motivated and involved in implementing integrated policies at all levels – national, regional and continental.

The African Union Commission (AUC) and UNDP’s Regional Programme for Africa seek to make the AfCFTA work for Africa’s youth with dedicated support targeting youth-led businesses. Through various initiatives on the implementation of the AfCFTA, including the inaugural AfCFTA Futures Report (2020), the Africa Youth Month Innovation Challenge, training guides, capacity building programmes, investments and cross-regional dialogues, Africa’s youth highlighted three key issues as being critical for maximizing their opportunities from the Agreement:

1. Youth are not a homogenous group

Any sweeping label, such as ‘youth’ or young people, tends to erase specificities and contextual differences. Youth are present in all facets of economies and societies; they are over-represented in the informal sector and more exposed to the associated drawbacks, while they are the driving force in technology, and creative, and other fast-growing sectors. Policies and implementation actions should therefore account for the inherent diversities among them.

2. Facilitating market access for youth

Efforts to connect African traders across countries should deliberately include youth- owned/led businesses. There is opportunity for the emergence of youth-focused cooperatives and pooled purchasing systems to aggregate demand and lower costs of trade through economies of scale. Similarly, trade service providers e.g. transportation, logistics and travel, should consider offering reduced rates for young cross-border traders.

3. Youth considerations in the AfCFTA: from policy design to implementation and monitoring of actions  

Countries and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) are currently developing AfCFTA implementation strategies/action plans and reforming trade-related rules and practices to ensure alignment with the AfCFTA. These efforts should look beyond macro and sectoral considerations to concretely identify production and investment opportunities for youth-led businesses. National and regional implementation strategies can clearly link to already identified – and novel – priorities for youth development.  Complementary initiatives such as simplified trade regimes and paperless trading systems could support an inclusive AfCFTA while lowering trade and production costs for youth-led businesses. Institutional arrangements to monitor AfCFTA implementation should account for good representation of young people via for instance, their business associations.

The Africa Youth Month Challenge 2020: innovating Africa’s transformation through the AfCFTA

A central feature of the AUC and UNDP engagement for youth is placing them at the heart of AfCFTA implementation and discourse. Accordingly, between November 2020 and November 2021, the AUC, in partnership with UNDP, hosted the Africa Youth Month Policy Challenge around the theme, ‘Innovating Africa’s Transformation through the AfCFTA’. The Challenge consisted of an AfCFTA masterclass for African youth followed by a competition in which finalists proposed regional and national strategic implementation plans for maximizing the benefits of the AfCFTA for women and youth.

At the end of the masterclass, 7 finalists selected from a pool of over 400 applications submitted AfCFTA implementation plans for countries and RECs. This experiment shows that Africa’s youth have clear proposals and priorities for the AfCFTA at national and regional levels. They clearly understand the institutional, economic and political dynamics of policymaking.

The winning finalist, Alexander Katemecha (centre), a Fisheries Officer Intern at Blantyre Fisheries Office in Malawi, proposed a national strategic plan aimed at achieving several inter-connected goals: empowering women and youth and increasing their participation in intra-African trade; transforming micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) into mainstream businesses; and facilitating e-commerce and digitalization. The strategic plan also prioritized access to safe, affordable and sustainable transport and information and communication technology (ICT), integration with regional and global value chains, and the mainstreaming of cross-cutting issues such as the environment and climate change.

The plan’s objectives require establishing efficient, stable and inclusive development finance institutions and service sectors to create an enabling environment that supports the growth of MSMEs.

The digital economy is acknowledged as a driver of cross-border trade. However, there are risks associated with digital trade, including a potential increase in precarious jobs; challenges in enforcing labour laws; an erosion of worker rights; a threat to the domestic industry’s future by requiring free transfer of data; and a preference for transnational companies over MSMEs.

Katemecha’s strategic plan also assigned clear responsibilities to various arms of government, defined indicators to measure success, and outlined a financing plan. 


Africa’s youth are critical to the success of the AfCFTA. An inclusive ‘behind the border’ agenda should take into account their interests and voices, from the design of AfCFTA-related interventions to their implementation and monitoring.

The AUC and UNDP will continue to collaborate with partners in placing youth at the forefront of AfCFTA policy design and implementation, with programmes and interventions that prioritize investments in youth, their capacities for production and export, and their access to expanded markets in the AfCFTA.