Experts have agreed that concrete policy measures are necessary to ensure that Africa’s women and youth – the drivers of the African economy – can be better integrated into the value chains, jobs and opportunities stemming from the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Agreement. It is for this reason that a Protocol on women and the youth will be negotiated and adopted as part of the AfCFTA. The SMEs run by women account for close to 60 per cent of Africa’s GDP, creating about 450 million jobs. The continent’s youths are at the cutting edge of technological advancements; particularly developing the latest software to drive e-commerce. In this interview with Doing Business’ James Karuhanga, the chief technical adviser on the AfCFTA, Prudence Sebahizi, discusses, among others, how far the Protocol on women and the youth has come. The excerpts: How far with the protocol on women in trade under AfCFTA? The AfCFTA Protocol on women and youth in trade is yet to be negotiated. However, preparatory work has already been undertaken, including; one, establishment of the Committee that will draft the Protocol; two, undertaking continental and regional consultations; and three, conducting studies that will inform the content of the Protocol. Shed some more light on these three elements of the preparatory work; who is in the committee that will draft the Protocol? What did the continental and regional consultations yield? The Committee on women and youth in trade will include designated representatives of member states. The continental and regional consultations of women and youth stakeholders delved into the identification of challenges that women and youth face while trading across borders and into the formulation of appropriate recommendations. These recommendations will be considered when negotiating the Protocol on women and youth in trade. How about the studies shaping the content of the protocol? The Protocol will translate these recommendations into legal provisions that will allow member states to address the challenges identified by women and youth in trade with the aim of enhancing and improving their participation in intra-African trade. Why is there this thinking that the AfCFTA would be incomplete without a protocol on women and youth in trade? Women and youth play an important role in trade and more so in Africa. How so? What exactly is this role? Trade in Africa is mostly dominated by micro and small enterprises that are mainly owned and run by women and youth. Up to 65 per cent of Africa’s population is below the age of 35 years, making Africa the world’s youngest continent. It is also established that women are active in trade as informal cross border traders. Youth and women ownership of the implementation of the AfCFTA Agreement in the coming years will largely depend on how much their contributions are factored in the negotiation process and their involvement in the initial implementation phases. The benefits of AfCFTA to women and youth are not automatic. If women and youth are not adequately engaged and empowered, the challenges the Agreement intends to address such as unemployment, indecent work, conflicts and poverty, will remain and rapidly increase. Talking about the world’s youngest continent, is it, therefore, clear why the needs of women traders should be negotiated together with those of African youth? It is more about ensuring inclusiveness in the AfCFTA process. A successful implementation of AfCFTA would be crucial in addressing most of the challenges faced by women and youth while trading across borders and women and youth are key to ensuring successful implementation. In other words, one cannot do without the other. You can’t have a successful trade agreement that excludes the majority of traders. African youth face unique challenges including unemployment and inadequate education but for women, the challenges are trade-related... They are both unemployment and trade related challenges. One of the expected benefits of the AfCFTA is job creation. If the Agreement limits participation by women and, or youth, then it will miss out on its promises. One more thing about Africa’s youth. By and large, most of the continent’s young entrepreneurs lack access to financing. What will be done about that? Issues such as access to financing are addressed in the national AfCFTA implementation strategies. A trade agreement cannot provide access to finance; it can reasonably facilitate the movement of capital by addressing disparities in financial regulations across state parties. So, when do we expect the Protocol to be negotiated, finally, especially since good progress is already made considering the preparatory work undertaken? Negotiations of the Protocol are expected to begin in the coming months. A decision to include the Protocol in the scope of AfCFTA was made in February 2022 and thereafter, consultations were necessary to inform negotiations. What other important things should people know about this Protocol? The Protocol seeks to promote inclusiveness, which is the very essence of the AfCFTA. Indeed, one of the key objectives of the AfCFTA is to promote and attain inclusive socio-economic development, gender equality and structural transformation of AfCFTA state parties. The Protocol will be negotiated to ensure clear implementation of this objective. It is important to keep in mind that the key to the success of the Protocol lies in implementation. The legal provisions of the Protocol should be supported by a robust implementation plan and supporting measures. This will require joint efforts by AfCFTA state parties, development partners, the private sector including women and youth in trade, in addition to other key actors. What should Africans expect from the AfCFTA, generally, in 2023? The start of trading under the AfCFTA has been launched and the negotiations of phase II issues will be completed. The next step is to support AfCFTA state parties in the implementation of the AfCFTA Agreement. The Guided Trade Initiative will play an important role in this regard as it seeks to facilitate commercially meaningful trading among interested AfCFTA state parties that have met the minimum requirements under the AfCFTA. This will be done through matchmaking of businesses and export ready products between interested AfCFTA state parties to be facilitated by AfCFTA national implementation committees. Participants to the initiative will utilise AfCFTA supporting tools such as the e-tariff book, the rule of origin manual, the NTB online mechanism tool, the Pan African Payment and Settlement System, and the Africa Trade Gateway, all designed to facilitate trade under the AfCFTA. So far, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Egypt, Mauritius and Cameroon are participating. It is our hope that other AfCFTA state parties will join this year as well. The year 2023 will also be about implementing the private sector strategy which seeks to promote the development of value chains in key sectors including agriculture and agro-processing, transport and logistics, pharmaceutical and automotive sectors. The AfCFTA Secretariat will continue its advocacy work to encourage further ratification of the Agreement. The Secretariat will also support AfCFTA state parties in the negotiations and finalization of the Protocol on women and youth in trade. The year 2023 will therefore be all about furthering the objectives of the AfCFTA through concrete actions.