Harnessing AfCFTA for gender equality is important – TMEA chief

Frank Matsaert, Chief Executive Officer of TradeMark East Africa (TMEA). Courtesy.

Frank Matsaert, Chief Executive Officer of Trade Mark East Africa (TMEA), was at the just concluded 22nd meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts (ICE) in Kigali which focused on implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement. 

After a plenary session on how to put it into action, Matsaert who has more than 20 years’ experience as a senior private sector development specialist in Africa spoke to Sunday Times’ James Karuhanga how his organisationwas lending a hand in the continent’s long-standing goal of creating a unified African market.

Matsaert also shared his broad view on political will, how gender is a central issue, and the need to harness convincing arguments about how the AfCFTA should benefit the majority instead of the prosperous minority.

Below are the excerpts:

You’ve been part of discussions and personally noted the momentum. But first, what’s Trade Mark East Africa doing, or bringing to the table, regarding implementation of the Continental Free Trade Area agreement?

Well, three things, I think. The first is knowledge. I have been working a lot with the UNECA team, including David Luke [Coordinator of the African Trade Policy Centre at ECA]. We’ve been trying to share experiences on the great gains made here in East Africa.

I mean, trade costs have come down on average 40 percent over the last eight years and we are really proud to have played a part in that with all our partners; the revenue authorities, the ministries, the private sector, … so, that knowledge is very valuable and, other parts of Africa have the same level of engagement on some of those issues as East Africa has.

What’s the other thing you are doing?

The second thing, really, is about private sector involvement. TradeMark East Africa is going to be teaming up with the Africa Champions Initiative. I’m just trying to scoop that at the moment, where we are trying to get behind the private sector voice and involvement and really helping to translate the trade agreement into practical steps.

At the panel, I said it is not just about the what. It is [also] about the how; how this trade agreement is going to be implemented. And it needs engagement not just from big business but also from smaller businesses and even traders because this will affect everyone across the continent.

The third element is?

We are teaming up with UNECA to also see whether we can pilot some of our experiences here, in West Africa, where there are differences and constraints to a different set of challenges. And one of the things I will be looking at during my stay here, is how we can actualize that and take it forward. And that’s not just about looking at One Stop Border Posts.

We might focus on one pilot programme but it’s also about getting ministers who were on the panel like Minister Amelia Kyambadde of Uganda], Minister Soraya Hakuziyaremye from Rwanda, to talk to their peers in other parts of Africa to give them the confidence that these things are possible and that there are tangible gains.

In the end, all about how this free trade area agreement will be implemented is about making sure that there are more winners than losers. My only concern is that there are businesses that make a lot of money from protectionism across the continent and it will take a lot of political will … we need to help the African Union and UNECA, and many others, to really put forward the argument convincingly because in the end it is about turning political will into action.

Political will has been pretty much emphasized in discussions here. How do you, really, see it happening or yielding results?

It’s about trying to make sure that people understand the benefits that could accrue to their economies at a national level and even down to the business level, to the level of a small cross border trader. The opportunities there, but there are going to be some costs.

Let’s talk about those costs.

The costs are going to be, basically, some businesses, the minority, losing out to the majority. And I think it’s about bringing those gains across the continent because political will can only exist where there is going to be a net gain.

What, then, is your definition of political will, in this context? Several speakers already indicated that political will does not imply the standalone actions of a country’s leader. Parliaments, civil society, and others, are part and parcel of this animal called political will. How do you define political will?

It is what I said back in the room [in plenary session]. Political will is the ability to work across all government to make change happen. And translating it, not just from a minister, but down to the level of a Customs Officer at a border post allowing goods to move. But it’s also about actually trying to do the right thing in terms of reform that may tread on some people’s interests. The ability to face that and to think about the good for the many, other than the good for the few.

Given this definition, how optimistic are you that things will happen?

I’m quite optimistic. I mean; I think this is a great initiative. The benefits for Africa would be huge. And in the end the challenge for Africa trading with itself, that would provide a huge boost to economic development across the continent particularly in industrialization where we are lagging. 

But also in agriculture that involves a lot of smallholder poor people, vulnerable groups. This is very transformational but we need to focus on really harnessing convincing arguments about how the many will benefit rather than the few. In some large economies across the continent, that argument has not been won 100 percent. 

So, it needs to be pushed out to make this happen in reality because no one wants a trade agreement that isn’t auctioned. Rwanda’s leadership has been exemplary. President Paul Kagame has done a fantastic job by pushing the envelope forward but I think it needs to be continued and those arguments need to be deployed. 

And it’s much better for those arguments to be deployed by regions of Africa that have benefitted already and, East Africa is a good example of that. I think the East Africa experience is something that should be sold across the continent to really make it happen and to harness that political will.

You are also set to, later today, contribute to discussions on harnessing the AfCFTA for gender equality. Some may want to know; how does gender equality really come into this entire conversation? What do you tell those who might not fully grasp the gender discourse?

A lot of smaller traders are women. And, informal trade is a very high percentage of our overall trade. You can’t ignore half of the population when it comes to economic development. It would be foolhardy to. Women face disproportionate barriers to growing their businesses, to getting access to finance, to getting access to assets. Inheritance laws are not very positive towards women and so, it’s a very important consideration that their voice is heard. 

I was [recently] down at an event in Zambia, the World Export Development Forum, where we had a panel of women and it is very clear that their voice needs to be heard at the table. And, in the end, we need to be seeing a much more equal level of benefits across the continent. That means that women; with their very leading role in households, need to be heard. Gender equality is a very important issue in all of this.

Any TMEA figures to back this argument up?

We’ve tried our best to focus on helping women at the borders, particularly in our region. There are hundreds of thousands, almost millions of women involved in trading. And we’ve tried our best to work on raising women’s incomes and reduce problems they face at borders, say, sexual harassment, gender-based violence, and not knowing what the trade regimes are. I think we reached about 30,000 now. 

We worked with partners here in Rwanda; Pro-Femmes. My ambition, with the work we are doing, is to reach about 300,000 women. If you multiply that up by six people per household, that’s reaching about 1.8 million people, over the next five years, and that is having a big impact. I think in what we have done with Pro-Femmes, we raised the monthly income for the women as figures doubled. So, the effect of that on a household was quite profound because we found that women invest more in the household than men.