Rwandan businessman Dennis Karera, who is the East African Business Council (EABC) Vice Chairman, was in July given an extra assignment- as the regional business community’s focal point on the African Continental Free trade Area (AfCFTA). In an interview with The New Times’ James Karuhanga, Karera spoke about his enthusiasm and shed light on, among others, what his role will be, and how his new task is complimentary to his usual role as EABC Vice Chairman. Excerpts: You were recently nominated as the EABC focal point for the AfCFTA. What does your new task entail? The Chairman of the EABC Board, Nick Nesbit presented a formal nomination letter and certificate to me. I will be deputized by Vimal Shah of Kenya and past Chairman of EABC, who also accepted it and the board approved him. Our task entails fast-tracking the EABC’s full scale engagement in the activities of the AfCFTA and discussing with the Secretariat in Accra the active role EABC will play in operationalisation of the AfCFTA. It’s just the beginning of a long journey, but our intention is to ensure that our regional bloc is fully on board, and making the best of this noble initiative. There is a lot going on currently and we are already engaged with UNECA in Kigali, looking at the different aspects that will be key in fast tracking our regional participation. Needless to emphasize, we want to trade with the rest of Africa as soon as yesterday. We are spending so much money as a region heading to distant destinations for goods and services that are available in Africa. Our leaders gave a blessing to the initiative. It’s now our duty to make things work. We shall work in collaboration with various stakeholders especially the office of the Secretary General of the East African Community (EAC) who has already pronounced his fullest commitment to support our efforts. We shall quickly engage the Secretary General of the AfCFTA to discuss how best to form the African Business Council and examine what can be borrowed from the EABC for emulating as we get into continental trading. The AU is already doing a lot of work in this respect and we shall be engaging them on a number of things. The EAC has a well-articulated Common Market Protocol as well a Customs Union Protocol. There is a lot to borrow from them as we contribute to the making of similar protocols for the entire continent. What are some of those different aspects you are now looking at that could be key in fast tracking the region’s participation then? The AfCFTA is very wide. It encompasses aspects of free movement of people across the continent, movement of goods and services, infrastructure, airspace, technology development and transfer, growth of value chains, industrialisation, growth and inclusion of MSMEs in continental trading, and many other things. We shall therefore move step by step, working with the AfCFTA Secretariat and the African Union Economic Commission to address each of the above. It involves a lot of work and ours is primarily advocacy for the region. There is, for example, discussion going on about liberalizing Africa’s airspace for ease of moving both people and cargo around the continent. We are contributing ideas to this discussion. We have a meeting in Senegal mid next month to discuss the best way to include MSMEs in trading beyond boarders. At the EAC we have big ideas we want to share regarding harmonization of the CET (Common External Tariff) to address fairness in competition. All these will be subjects of continuous discussion as we go along. What ideas do you have on how best to form the African Business Council? What do you think can be borrowed from the EABC in this regard? Interestingly, EABC happens to be the best organized trade bloc on the continent. Our establishment is stipulated in the Treaty establishing the EAC as the private sector body that will stimulate regional integration. This is why the EAC mantra of regional integration is ‘people-centred and private sector led’. These are some of the ideas we want to share with our colleagues across the continent. Last week, we had a meeting with ECOWAS who are seeking to learn from us how best to implement the Common Market Protocol as well as the Customs Union. We happily shared our practice and experience. Our idea on the formation of the African Business Council is to create a body that has representation from the eight RECs (Regional Economic Communities) on the continent. Numbers of representatives will be discussed. That way, we bring together the thinking and best practices from all the blocs to the table, identify what works best for the continent’s aspirations and recommend to the Secretariat what should be penned down in the different treaties that will be signed at different times. We also want to share EAC’s best practice of a visa free regime for Africans in Africa. As you (know) this usually presents an impediment to movement of people and services. Overall, there is a lot we want to bring to the table and we are sure it will be of significant importance to the formation of the ABC. By the by, how does your new role impact on your being EABC Vice Chairman? How do you juggle the two? How does it all work for you? My new task as EABC’s focal point for the AfCFTA is complimentary to my usual role as Vice Chairman (of EABC). What increases is the scope of activity, but (it is) pretty much very similar work. Our roles as the four Vice Chairpersons in EAC centre around coordination of EABC activities and advocacy in our partner states and around the region. So, my new role only expands the sphere of activity and advocacy. I have to convey EABC’s views, ideas and positions to the AfCFTA Secretariat as well as bring feedback so that we are on the same page at all times. My two roles, therefore, are pretty much consonant. The EABC has previously expressed its desire for the region to fast-track negotiations of the AfCFTA in line with private sector positions. What, precisely, are these regional private sector positions? And to what end? Very true, the EABC advocated a lot for fast-tracking of AfCFTA negotiations and we continue to do so. The reasons are simple and straight; why should we continue spending Africa’s meagre resource on enriching other continents yet we own more than 85% of the raw materials? Why? And we remain poor by design! We only have ourselves to blame. Look, the AfCFTA presents Africa’s golden opportunity of a market of 1.2 billion people. Imagine these are all buyers or consumers. The continent’s estimated combined GDP is $3 trillion and this will push intra-African trade by over 50 percent. What prevents us from saying goodbye to poverty, disease, malnutrition and stop being beggars? These are some of the concerns we keep raising at the EABC and we shall carry the same advocacy to the AfCFTA. This will be a continuous struggle and we shall not relent. Remember, most of these plans being discussed come with related or unrelated barriers. We often refer to them as NTBs (non tarrif barriers). Barriers are one other monster to be dealt with at all times. There will, no doubt, be complexities with trade barriers across the continent, especially arising from the different legal jurisdictions. It will require intense discussions or negotiations, experts and advisors will be called in to formulate workable solutions to all these. This is the reason my opening statement for this conversation was: this is a start of a long journey. Rwanda, where you come from, is the country most committed to the Continental Free Trade Area agreement, according to the AfCFTA Year Zero Report. How much zeal are you taking into your assignment? Rwanda has indeed been at the forefront in the implementation of the AfCFTA, also having hosted the African Union extraordinary session on March 21, 2018 at which the agreement was signed to launch the AfCFTA. Rwanda’s footprint in this direction is remarkable and can’t be wished away, leading by example and living up to its commitment. My personal and organization’s praise go to our President, H.E. Paul Kagame, for the exemplary lead role he untiringly plays in putting the African house together to address our challenges with our own solutions. I am more than enthusiastic about my new assignment, most especially knowing that my President is in the cockpit of the AfCFTA Boeing destined to all African countries. I occasionally refer to it as the latest Africa Economic Integration Flight 001. As EABC, we shall constantly seek his guidance on a wide range of issues to do with implementation of projects under the AfCFTA. We are obviously lucky that it’s us who have him but we certainly know he cares as much for the wider African consumer, service provider and the African entrepreneurs. The Rwandan performance culture of operating performance targets (imihigo) is excellent, no doubt about it. It’s one of those best practices I have always shared with the EABC Board and will similarly share it with the AfCFTA Secretariat. It’s not a common phenomenon across Africa but it’s one we ought to embrace because it presents a measurable yardstick against which we count and assess our achievements versus failures.