Towards a border-smart, #integratedAfrica

What can data tell us about human mobility and trade openness in Africa?

January 9, 2023
Fishermen off the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania

Fishermen off the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania

UNDP Regional Programme for Africa

The call for an integrated Africa to strengthen its nations and communities is more urgent than ever. This requires enhancing safe and orderly mobility across borders to facilitate cross-border trade in goods and services across Africa.

More than two years into the global COVID-19 pandemic, the economic and social effects of this global crisis on African economies remain persistent. The war in the Ukraine has dramatically affected world grain and oil markets, causing high food prices across Africa, undermining food security and increasing vulnerability to shocks and climate change. Such challenges are expected to continue for some time, hindering growth in the continent and impeding full recovery from the pandemic.[1] How can Africa transform these economic shocks into sustainable, inclusive and productive growth? Is the region prepared to accelerate its vision for an integrated continent through enhanced, safe and orderly movement of persons and cross-border trade?

The AfCFTA can boost Africa’s income by $450 billion and lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty by 2035.

Free trade among African countries

An essential step towards an integrated African continent is the full implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which aims to act as an important stimulus recovery package. With the potential to boost Africa’s regional income by US$450 billion and lift 30 million people out of extreme poverty by 2035, the AfCFTA, if fully implemented, has all the ingredients to make that possible.[2]

The successful implementation of AfCFTA also depends strongly on the free movement of people and goods. Thus African Union (AU) Member States have an important responsibility to ratify the agreement and unlock the social and economic potential of the continent by rethinking how to work, trade and communicate across continental borders. As of October 2022, of the 55 African Union (AU) Member States, 44 have ratified the Agreement, leaving 22 percent of African countries unintegrated.  All Member States that have not yet ratified the AfCFTA must urgently come on board so that the region can fully realize the impact of enhanced intra-African trade.

The Guided Trade Initiative, launched by the AfCFTA Secretariat in October 2022, will kickstart trading through the AfCFTA by focusing on value chain development across eight countries using earmarked products.

Free movement of people across Africa

The ability to travel freely within Africa is an important asset to promote trade in goods, cross-border and regional investments and encourage labour mobility and skills transfer between African countries. Countries must sign and ratify the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons (PFMP) to fulfil the aspirations of an integrated Africa as outlined in the AU’s Agenda 2063.  That will ensure students, tourists, investors and business people can freely and easily transit, reside and establish themselves in countries and regions across the continent.

As of January 2022, 33 of the 55 AU Member States had signed the PFMP protocol.

Continental coverage of the AfCFTA and PFMP

Continental coverage of the AfCFTA and PFMP

AVOI Report 2021

The importance of regional communities

Regional Economic Communities (RECs) are important “players” in the African integration process. They foster intra-African trade and development within regions. Intra-REC trade figures show that there is much to be gained through greater cooperation between RECs, and extrapolating from there, through the AfCFTA.

For instance, the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) have the lowest intra-REC and intra-continental trade levels, whereas the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which represents the largest trading bloc in Southern Africa, accounts for approximately 20 percent of their global trade.

RECs show promising progress on human mobility. The operationalization of the East Africa Community (EAC) visa and the establishment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) passport has been beneficial for the movement of citizens living in those regions. ECOWAS has a long history of intra-regional migration flows, with nearly 90 percent of the migrants coming from other countries in the region,[3] out of which 70 percent are linked to regional employment possibilities.

ECOWAS and SADC record relatively better intra-regional trade than other RECs in Africa. They also score highest among the RECs on the African Visa Openness Index (AVOI). Comparatively, both AMU and ECCAS have the lowest scores of openness. These findings indicate an important association between the openness of regional communities and their degree of intra-REC trade.

On the continental level, limited openness could impede proper implementation of the AfCFTA, considering that 51 percent of Africans need a visa before travelling to another African country, a number which increased from 46 percent in 2020.

Intra-REC in total trade, 2020

Intra-REC in total trade, 2020

AVOI Report 2021
Intra-regional trade

Intra-regional trade

AVOI Report 2021


The African Visa Openness Index

The African Visa Openness Index (AVOI) measures the extent to which African countries are open to travellers from other African countries. Countries with the highest openness scores tend to have the lowest income levels. 17 of the 20 countries rated most open are low income or lower middle-income countries. Of the top 10 “open” countries, the only high-income country is Seychelles.

Conversely, five of the seven upper middle-income African countries show a very low openness score. Only Mauritius, among the upper middle-income countries, scores high. In addition, landlocked states generally score low on the AVOI.

This pattern warrants attention and more analysis, as it indicates that both income and geography are connected to the degree of openness towards other African countries.

How open are African countries to each other?

Benin, The Gambia and Seychelles are the most open to fellow Africans, with no visa requirements for any African country. Obstacles are present in other countries, mainly related to high costs of visas. The average price of visas across Africa is $63, ranging from $12 to $250. For example, Burkina Faso charges about $190 for an entry visa. Time and money spent on visa processes, poor flight connections and incorrect perceptions of other African countries all contribute to foregone opportunities across the continent.

Looking at global access to South Africa, 80 countries around the world can access the country without a visa, but only 15 African countries can. Similarly, in Botswana, of the 104 countries that can enter the country visa-free, only 16 are African. However, both Botswana and South Africa are making important progress towards electronic visas and incorporating sub-regional agreements.

African Visa Openness Index

African Visa Openness Index

AVOI Report 2021
The average price of visas across Africa is US$63, ranging from $12 to $250.

Free movement of goods and people: A catalyst to achieve “The Africa We Want”

Agenda 2063 envisions Africa as an integrated and politically united continent that bases itself on the ideals of Pan-Africanism. A central element on the road to achieving an Africa of shared values and strong cultural identity is the removal of physical borders. Reaching the AU vision of “The Africa We Want” requires facilitating the free movement of people, capital and goods and services to increase trade and investments between African countries to create lasting economic and social bonds among Africa’s peoples.

The AU has underscored the importance of capitalizing on global migration towards e-passports, the abolishment of visa requirements for all African citizens and the introduction of an African Passport, which is expected to see important progress this year after having been delayed by two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An African passport will not only showcase a united front in solving economic issues across the continent, but also promote a pan-African identity towards the shared vision of a more socially and culturally united continent.

Are African countries open to African travellers?

Are African countries open to African travellers?

AVOI Report 2021
Intracontinental travel is essential for African youth, who wish to revitalize and secure the continent’s future.

Ongoing developments made by the AfCFTA, such as the Protocol on Women and Youth in Trade, are important instruments to ensure the agreement reaches marginalized populations. Africa’s youth have the agency to tap into opportunities within the continent and are eager to acquire skills and knowledge necessary to help make progress within the continent.

Today, about 70,000 African skilled workers emigrate every year, resulting in a continental brain drain.[4] By facilitating border crossings, skills gaps are more likely to be filled continentally and skill mismatches in labour markets[5] can be adequately addressed. Furthermore, intracontinental travel is essential for a young population eager to revitalize and secure the continent’s future through cultural exchanges, entrepreneurship and business.

What needs to be done?

As mutually reinforcing instruments, the AfCFTA and PFMP are essential instruments towards achieving the Agenda 2063 vision. Hence, it is important for African countries to take the following actions:

  • Ratify the AfCFTA and sign and ratify the PFMP;
  • Work collaboratively, including with civil society, to advocate for the economic, social and cultural benefits of the safe and orderly movement of people as a crucial aspect for realizing Africa’s integration agenda;
  • Facilitate the exchange of workers, students and tourists to normalize intra-African travel;
  • Digitalize e-visas and issue AU passports across all African countries as a means to enhance mobility governance, encourage skills and knowledge exchange, facilitate intra-Africa mobility, and boost intra-Africa trade.


UNDP’s Regional Programme for Africa contributes to the implementation of UNDP’s Strategic Plan (2022-25) and the Regional Bureau for Africa’s Strategic Offer in Africa. In recognition of the importance of grounding development programming in data analytics, the What can data tell us? series provides readers with an overview of emerging development trends in Africa using quantitative analysis and visualization.


[1] Regional Economic Outlook for Sub-Saharan Africa, April 2022, IMF.

[2] The African Continental Free Trade Area: Economic and Distributional Effects 2020, World Bank Group.

[3] Data from UN DESA (2020). Migration data in Western Africa.

[4] The Revised Migration Policy Framework for Africa and Plan of Action (2018 – 2027), African Union.

[5] South Africa scores low on the AVOI and has not signed the PFMP. The country faces the risk of skilled workers shortages,[1] reflecting the skills gap on the continent. Companies and manufacturers, in such cases, therefore, tend to hire unskilled candidates, which in turn affects production opportunities and development.